Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Joy of Story: an Introduction

If you’re familiar with this blog of mine, you’ll notice that it has a new name. Originally calling it “John’s Litserve,” I thought I’d focus on editing and publishing as well as writing fiction; and I still mention editing and publishing in the subtitle. But I find that the subject that interests me most is the great pleasure of writing stories and writing them well. What do I mean by “story”? Well, I’ll cover that in a later post, perhaps next week. This week’s post is a fantasy about how the art form of story originated in human culture.

A few other announcements before I start:

1. A few people have mentioned that they’re having trouble leaving comments on my blog, although some succeed. If you find you’re having trouble leaving a comment, feel free to send it to me off-line, by email.

2. I have decided to include a guest blogger once a month, if volunteers step forward. Interested? Let me know and I’ll send you a few interview questions to choose among.

3. I will continue, at the end of each of my posts, to give you a snippet of my forthcoming novel, Behind the Redwood Door, which will be published in November. Consider it a gift, or consider it a message from our sponsor.

On with the show.…

Arguably the oldest art form in human culture is the story. I say “arguably,” because I’m the veteran of several arguments on this topic with would-be anthropologists who claim the title for dance, music, cave paintings, and double-entry bookkeeping. But I stick to my guns: story got there first.

I say this because I date the beginning of human culture by the beginning of human spoken communication. I’m talking about speech that transcends snarls of anger, grunts of lust, and screams of fear. I say human culture began with sentences at least as complex as “You going to eat the rest of that leg of ibex, or what?” Conversation.

Knowing human beings as I do, I’m willing to bet my wallet that as soon as our ancestors learned to communicate with each other by speech, they started developing skills to entertain, impress, and hoodwink each other. Since truth wasn’t always up to the task (it isn’t today, so why should it have been for cave folk?), the act of embellishment was discovered, and fiction was born.

Of course story doesn’t have to be fiction. But isn’t it, usually? Ask most memoirists today, and they’ll agree that a certain amount of “editing” is involved.

So return with me now to the Primal Circle, a bunch of human beings (with some Neanderthal DNA in the mix, although polite cave folk don’t talk about how it got there) gathered together around a campfire after a hard day of hunting.

They talk:

“Good gnus, Murray,” says the Boss, an ancient woman in her fortieth year. “How’d you manage to kill two in the same day?”

Murray swallowed his bite of barbecued gnu, wiped his beard, took a swig of banana beer, belched, and began to spin his yarn. “Well, see, I was walking down by the Muchmuck River, talking to my friend Cedric, the African Grey parrot who knows stuff, and he told me that on the other side of the Muchmuck was a plain called the Banana Savanna, where I would find good gnus. I guess I was busy listening to Cedric, and not watching where I was going, and I tripped over a log and fell right into what passes for water in the Muchmuck river. I stood up, sputtering and listening to my parrot so-called friend laughing at me, when the log sprouted stubby arms and legs, swished a mighty tail, opened a grin full of razor-sharp stalactites and stalagmites, and slithered into the water. Well I took off with the current, going like gangbusters, but I could hear the splash of that croc getting closer and closer to my feet. If it hadn’t have been for Cedric dive-bombing the river-lizard, why—”

“Aw baloney,” said Hugo, a burley fellow who looked like a cross between Burt Reynolds and a Rottweiler. “Not how it happened at all.”

“Shut up, Hugo,” said several cave folk, using different combinations of words, some of which we don’t have anymore, and others I don’t dare repeat.

“But we all crossed Muchmuck River on that log,” Hugo insisted. “There wasn’t any crocodile. And what’s more—”

The Boss spoke. “Let Murray tell it.”

“Why?” Hugo demanded. “I was the one who brought back the gnus, not Murray.”

“Murray tells it better,” the Boss said. “I have spoken.”

Ever since Murray recounted the hunts each evening to his fellow cave folk, the subtleties of storytelling have been honed and practiced and have entertained and enlightened listeners and readers. Many of the rules and tools of fiction were invented by the earliest of storytellers. And one aspect of the art form remains to this day: whoever tells the best story gets the most attention.

Preview of a coming attraction Behind the Redwood Door:

            The scream was so loud I bobbled the salad plate and dropped oily lettuce all over my lap.
            “My God, he’s been murdered!”
            The room stopped chattering. Suddenly you could hear the basketball game on the television competing with “Shrimp Boats” on the jukebox. Gloria picked up a couple of remote controls and silenced them both. The Redwood Door was filled with a very loud hush. From where I was sitting, all I could see was the backs of people’s heads. Everyone was staring, watching the woman at the back of the tavern. Waiting.
            River Webster appeared frightened, furious, wild and very sober. She opened her trembling mouth and shouted, “Gloria, call nine-one-one. Now!”
            Then she turned and disappeared into the dark corridor that led to the back door of the tavern.
            The chatter returned to the room, sounding like a garbage disposal going full blast. I put my hand on Carol’s arm, to ask her: Was that for real? Who was murdered? And most of all…
            Carol turned her face to me and answered with a nod: You’d better get on back there.
            I nodded and got down off my stool.

            I shoved open the back door and walked out into the mist. The tiny three-car parking lot and the alley behind it were lit by a dim yellow floodlight. River rushed into my arms and hugged me around the neck, sobbing and snuffling. I held her gently, stroked her hair, hummed to calm her down, and finally she let me breathe. She backed away enough for me to see her anguished face hiccupping and gasping in the mist, then pointed at the body slumped against the brick back wall of the Redwood Door.
            Pete Thayer sat on the wet asphalt, his back against the bricks, his head and shoulders propped up by the side of a Dumpster. The expression frozen on his face was one of shock and disbelief. His throat was gashed wide open, with the bloody handle of a large kitchen knife still protruding from the wound. His sequoia-green sweater was soaked with black blood.…

For more previews of this Guy Mallon mystery, set on Northern California’s redwood coast, stay tuned to this station…

Sunday, August 21, 2011


I’ve been invited to participate in a blog tour that will start in late November, just after the publication of my forthcoming novel, Behind the Redwood Door. I’ll have to prepare a dozen posts ahead of time, and when I get further instructions I’ll be sending these posts to a dozen hosts, who will post them on designated days during a two-week virtual tour. Meanwhile, the hosts (fellow tourists) will all be sending their blog posts to me, for me to post on my blog (this very blog) on the designated day.

This may sound complicated to you. It sounds labyrinthine to me. But I’d doing it, because I feel it’s my obligation to Oak Tree Press, the small independent publisher who’s willing to put my novel into print.

One thing I will try hard to avoid, and that’s the hard sell. Yes, it’s to be a promotional tour, but I don’t want to come on like a used car salesman. As I make my tour around these wide United States (without leaving my office), I want to offer something of value to other writers, and I want my blog posts to be about writing, about language, about the writing life.

Meanwhile, I will try to keep this blog of mine, called John’s Litserv, alive and well, with a weekly post. My intention at this point is to write about the Joy of Story, which was the name of the class I taught through Humboldt State University Extended Education this summer.

Interspersed occasionally will be occasional guest blogs from other writers. I plan to devise an interview for these guests to follow, be inspired by, or ignore. More about this next week.

As an added attraction, each blog entry for the next while will contain a short passage from Behind the Redwood Door, sort of like a preview at the picture show. An example is pasted below.

Meanwhile, to those of you who already check in on this blog from time to time, I appreciate your company. To those just happening upon this site for the first time, know that you’ll always be welcome. And I value feedback.

Preview of a coming attraction:

            Carol and I had a good day at the store. We closed at six and walked under our umbrella two blocks to the Redwood Door, our favorite tavern on the town square of Jefferson City. We had dinner there every Friday evening.
            The place was jammed with the usual noisy mix of laid-off loggers, furry fishermen, assorted North Coast artists, and small-town downtown riffraff. Down at the end of the bar was a mean-looking little man in a black wool watch cap, whom everyone called Nails; I say little, but he looked about five foot four, which made him four inches taller than me. Next to Nails sat his giant sidekick, Louie Luau, who looked as dumb as shoe leather. The two of them were there every Friday night, in the same seats. Maybe every other night too. According to Gloria, they were both fond of boilermakers, a shot of Yukon Jack washed down with a bottle of Anchor Steam. Nice guys, for all I knew, and I was always glad to see them from a distance, even if I would have been nervous if one of them were to ask me for a light.
            We walked in and sat down on stools at the bar, and Gloria, the bartender, sauntered over and said, “Guy comes into a bar, and...”
            It wasn’t the first time Gloria had used this line, and Gloria was not the first bartender to say it every time I sat down on a bar stool. (Hint: never make a pun on a person’s name. They’ve heard it before.)

From Behind the Redwood Door: a Guy Mallon Mystery, to be published November 20, 2011.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Baa, Baa, Baa!

Note: Two days ago I had surgery on my shoulder. It was a minor procedure, sort of, although I was fully anesthetized and ever since I’ve been partly anesthetized with pain killers that make me goofy at my clearest. Bear with me, please. If you have any complaints about my driving, call 1-800-BAD DRUG.

Yesterday I received an email from Terry Ross, the editor and publisher of Black Lamb, the literary monthly print magazine I contribute essays to. I’ve never met Terry, but it’s a matter of literary pride that I get to drop the line, “My editor, Mr. Ross…” Since that’s one of my favorite gaglets, I may have pulled it on you before, in which case I’m sorry. My favorite Mr. Ross story:

When Dorothy Parker finally opened her apartment door, disheveled and disgruntled, the messenger from The New Yorker said, “I’m sorry to disturb you, Miss Parker, but Mr. Ross says he needs your copy right now,” to which Dorothy P. replied, “You tell Mr. Ross I’m too %&!#ing busy, and vice versa!”

Anyway, my Mr. Ross, Terry, was also requesting copy, though not so urgently. This was Terry’s annual advance schedule and shout-out for next year’s themed issues. Each year Terry assigns themes to six of the twelve issues. January is the “Anniversary Issue,” which I don’t really understand as an assignment, but I suppose I’ll find some topic that has a certain yearliness. One of the summer months is for the annual Book Review Issue. I’m trying to decide among J. M. Barrie’s My Lady Nicotine, Christopher Morley’s The Trojan Horse, and Thorne Smith’s The Nightlife of the Gods.

For next year’s other four, Terry has thrown down some heavy gauntlets: Gambling, Medicine, Politics, and Religion. I wish I could call in some assistance. For Gambling, I’d enlist my stepson, Cory Graham, who lives in Las Vegas and has worked as a marketing manager for several of the large casinos. As for Medicine, I’d seek help from my brother, Thomas Daniel, who is Professor Emeritus of Case Western Reserve Medical School and has devoted his retirement to writing distinguished books of medical history. In the Religion department, I’d turn to my son, Ben Daniel, a Presbyterian minister and the author of the award-winning book Neighbor: Christian Encounters with “Illegal” Immigrants. Then there’s Politics. Everyone I know is an equally cocksure and flawed authority on that subject. By the way, the Politics issue will come out in November 2012. How’s that for timing? We can look forward to fireworks. The literate and flamboyant columnists of Black Lamb occupy all available positions on the political spectrum. You can be sure of two things when you read an issue of Black Lamb: writing to enjoy and admire, and at least one firebrand to disagree with, whatever your own position may be.

For more information about Black Lamb, check out
By the way, subscriptions are reasonable. That’s unabashed soft sell for a good buy.

And as long as I’m at it, check out what else Terry Ross is up to, speaking of the year 2012. He has published a beautiful Literary Calendar for that year. Illustrated in full color, the dates are packed with literary facts, tidbits of gossip, authors and their titles. Want to know what writers were born on your birthday? Here they are. Guess who shares a birthday with Andre Gide, George Eliot, and William Kotzwinkle? Hint: he’s about to take a nap.

Anyway, for more information on The Ultimate Literary Calendar for 2012, see

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Advance Reading Copies

It's a proud moment when an author receives advance reading copies of a book due to be published a few months hence. For one thing, it's a first chance to read the book "in print," even if there are a few straggling typos and formatting glitches to iron out before the book goes to press. A chance to say, "Yes, by God, this is a good book!"

But of course the real function of advance reading copies (ARCs) is to send them out like carrier pigeons into the society of reviewers. They go to the big industry journals (Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, and Kirkus), and to the book reviewers associated with important newspapers, and to specialty media. In my case that means media that specialize in reviewing mystery fiction.

So out go these ARCs, sent with hopes and best wishes. The worst that could happen? No response, like dropping a feather into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo. The best that could happen? Well I don't dare even imagine the best that could happen, but I'll be grateful for any kind of response at all. Between the publisher (Oak Tree Press) and myself, we're sending out a few dozen ARCs, and I expect some of these will cause an echo. Maybe even a fanfare or two…?

My novel, Behind the Redwood Door, will be published in late November. Here's the cover sheet I sent out with the ARCs:

TITLE: Behind the Redwood Door: A Guy Mallon Mystery
AUTHOR: John M. Daniel
PUB DATE: November 20, 2011
SPECS: 250 pages; 6X9”; trade paperback; $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61009-023-0
SUBJECT: Mystery Fiction

Who knows what secrets lurk…

Guy and Carol Mallon own a used bookstore on the north coast of California, a land of rocky shores and redwood forests, with a rich history of gold, lumber, Native Americans, and hardy entrepreneurs. They are content with their small-town life until Pete Thayer, their friend and the publisher of the local alternative newspaper, is stabbed to death behind their favorite tavern. Urged on by Pete’s girlfriend, River Webster, Guy begins to poke around, uncovering a past festering with power politics, a newspaper war, a multigenerational family feud, marijuana traffic—and murder. Guy’s investigation takes him from the town square to the harbor to the forests and into the mountains, where he must confront evil in the form of a bully nearly twice his size.
This novel, rich with history and small-town secrets, is peopled by swindlers and fishermen, Rotarians and dope-growers, prim Presbyterians and floozies, and a small but feisty, curious, bookseller addicted to getting into trouble and other people’s business. Author John M. Daniel’s style is by turns witty and elegant, serving up fear and laughter in generous helpings.
John M. Daniel is a small-press publisher (Daniel & Daniel, Perseverance Press) in Humboldt County, California, where he also teaches creative writing. He is the author of ten published books, including two earlier Guy Mallon mystery novels: The Poet’s Funeral and Vanity Fire.

Oak Tree Press books are available through Ingram Book Company and Baker & Taylor at standard industry terms.
For further information:

Billie Johnson, Editor; Jeana Thompson, Publicity; Billie Johnson, Subsidiary Rights
Oak Tree Press
140 E. Palmer Street
Taylorville, Illinois 62568