Monday, August 24, 2015

It’s also about how it looks: A book isn’t just what’s written inside it . . . .

You can’t just judge a book by its cover. Or even by the words inside.

Last week I sent off the files for the three volumes of The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. They’re now in the hands of the publisher, Steve Emecz, who will be arranging the behind-the-scenes parts with the printers that turn all of the hours that people spent writing stories (and that I spent editing them) into something physical.

Coming out of this experience has left me still in a heightened editorial mode. When I read other books now, I see things, and can’t unsee them. (“Where’s that missing comma, Clive Cussler?!?”) There are the obvious mistakes, such as misspelled words and run-on sentences. And then there are small issues, such as missing commas in a series or other punctuation errors. I hope that I caught all of that in the new MX books, but I know that, in over 1,300 pages, a few things will still have slipped through. Have mercy on me.

One thing that is very obvious to me now when I look at books is how things are set up internally. Lately, I’ve been re-reading the Solar Pons stories. Now, I won’t preach here too much right now about how you should read the Pons adventures, because that’s a different topic, but you should. There’s a great deal of information about Pons at my friend Bob Byrne’s website to get you going: The original Pons stories by American August Derleth were meant as a continuation of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The Pons tales are set in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He wears a deerstalker and Inverness, and his adventures are narrated by his Watsonian flatmate, Dr. Lyndon Parker. They are very much in the Holmes tradition. Derleth wrote over seventy Pons stories, and after his death, the series was continued by British author Basil Copper. I’ve also written a Pons “origin” story – “The Adventure of the Other Brother” in The Papers of Sherlock Holmes Vol. II, (Spoiler – Pons is NOT the other brother!) and a new online set of Pons tales, to which I’ve contributed two, will be appearing – hopefully later this year – as edited by Bob Byrne.

Now the reason that I mention this is that, as I’m re-reading the Pons stories, I’m doing so from a number of different editions. The stories (in book format, after some initial magazine appearances,) were originally published by Derleth’s own imprint, Mycroft and Moran, from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. When I was a teen in the late 1970’s, the Pons books were issued in paperback by Pinnacle, and those were the first versions that I bought and read. In the early 1980’s, the stories were edited – with some controversy – by Copper into a two-volume Omnibus hardcover set, issued by another of the late Derleth’s publishing imprints, Arkham House. Finally, a few years ago a big 8½” x 11” two-volume set, reprinting the original versions before Copper’s edits, was issued by the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box (BSDB).

I have all four sets, and I’ve been rotating between them as I re-read the Pontine Canon. I didn’t mind Copper’s edits so much, as he arranged all of the stories in chronological order – much like Baring-Gould did in his Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which I admire. Copper also corrected some of Derleth’s misplaced Americanisms in the stories to more correct British usage, which is the main part of the controversy, but when I was younger, I never noticed the difference.

A few days ago, it was time to re-read the Pons story “The Adventure of the Unique Dickensians”, a Christmas story set in 1920. As might be inferred from the title, there are a lot of nods to Charles Dickens within the story. Recently, I had acquired a copy of this tale in Chapbook form from The Mysterious Bookshop. Having his own publishing imprints, Derleth occasionally released his tales in this form, in addition to magazine and book publication. Since I’d just bought this chapbook version, I decided to read the story in that format, and that was when – since I was still in deep editorial mode – I started thinking about the differences in the way things look.

So I have five versions of this story, and none of them are particularly painful to look at. The chapbook is clearly the easiest to read, as it has the biggest and most readable print, and extra pages to spread out over its half-size 8½” x 5½” sheets. The next easiest is the Mycroft and Moran edition, the original book version in which it appeared, (in The Chronicles of Solar Pons.) Next comes the Omnibus version, as edited by Copper. The print is much smaller, approximately 9-point, but it’s still not too unpleasant, and once you get into the story, you don’t notice it. Then comes the big BSDB version, with the stories printed in smaller-type and in double columns. Still readable once you get in the swing of things, but not as pleasant as a smaller and lighter book with standard page set-up arrangements. Finally, in order of decreasing enjoyment, is the Pinnacle paperback version, both because of its aging yellow paper, but also due to the layout on the page, which somehow allows one’s mind to get distracted instead of staying in the story.

I don’t know all the technical reasons for this, but sometimes a book is just hard to read, and I’m not talking about the content. You’ve all had this experience. Something might be one of the best things you’ve ever read, but if it’s unpleasant to look at in a book, the experience is somewhat spoiled. (I’m not talking about e-books here, obviously. If I have a choice, I want something real, although my wife and I disagree on this point.) For example, I’ve been reading Burroughs’ Tarzan books since I was a teenager, but my copies for the longest time were the old Ballantine paperbacks, with yellowish paper (getting yellower and browner every year), and the alleys (the blank space on the outside of a book page) and the gutters (the blank space on the inside near the binding) are miniscule. You almost have to crack the spine of the book to read the print that runs down into the gutters. Additionally, the print is very tiny and hard to read. It’s just too jammed up to enjoy completely.

Compared to this, for instance, are some of the Robert B. Parker Spenser books, especially those from the mid-1990’s, which seem to be mostly blank space. These books have huge alleys and gutters, as well as massive spaces at the tops and bottoms of the pages. (I don’t know if that part has a technical name.) The print is big, the spacing between the lines is widened out, and the short chapters mean lots and lots of new chapter headings, and those headings are a half-page of blank paper every time one shows up. Definitely not unpleasant to read – I can fly through one of those 300-page books in a few hours – but I always have the sense that it’s really a novella that’s been expanded to justify the cost of a full-sized book. (The same thing just happened with the new Harper Lee book Go Set A Watchman. There’s a lot of blank space in that book too.)

When I was setting up the three volumes in the new MX collection, I had to find a balance between readability and discomfort. The alleys and gutters are about three-quarters of an inch, and the spaces at the tops and bottoms of the pages are not too wasteful. The lines are single-spaced, and the paragraphs are indented, and not separated from the previous paragraphs by a space, such as one would find in a technical paper or high school report. (A lot of new authors are paragraphing this way in their books now.)

And the margins are justified, and not a ragged right margin, as is often seen nowadays. When I was ten years old, and trying to write my own Hardy Boys books, I bled inside while trying to get my margins to line up on both sides like the real books, but on an old typewriter, you just cannot line up that right margin. With the invention of word processing programs, justifying the right margin is possible, and all our failed attempts to look justified in the old days are now achievable. (I wish I could get this blog to right justify.) I had a boss who insisted (after being told this by an expensive marketing company) that reading is easier if you don’t justify the right margins, and he would take reports or even letters and unjustify them. I disagree with this thinking. One of the pinnacles of our civilization is that we can now justify any document on our own, without relying on a professional printer to set it up for us. Why wouldn’t you justify your documents?

The font size for the new MX collection is 11, not too big, and certainly not as small as what was being considered at one time (9-point) to cram all of the stories into one fat volume. I used good old basic Times New Roman font, because it looks good on paper when you’re reading it. Too many people aren’t aware that a number of fonts that are designed to look good on a web-page are not made for the printed page, and vice versa. (For instance, cross-bars and serifs are widened or thinned as needed to show up better.)

In the rise of print-on-demand (POD) companies, it would behoove authors to take a look at some bestselling books, and notice how they are set up, in terms of page layout, line spacing, font, and margin justification. Too often the author thinks that just getting the work down on paper is all that’s involved, and then the work is done. The work must be read and re-read and re-read again, looking for mistakes and better ways to say things, and also to make sure that the plot hangs together – no unanswered questions or dead-end threads. Have someone else read it too – you never see your own mistakes, and the more you go over it, the more your brain bridges right over an error. (I’ve read and spell-checked this essay three times, and no doubt there are errors in it somewhere.)

And then, since it’s on the author’s head to do this when dealing with POD companies, lay out your book in such a way that it looks professional. Don’t be afraid to have blank pages before and after the main body of the work, just like the books of old. Think about when you’re holding a book, and what will be on the left-hand and right-hand pages, and adjust accordingly within the file, adding a blank page here or there if necessary to shift things where you want them. Start stories or new chapters on the top of the page, and not in the middle of a previous page. If you need advice setting page numbers or figuring out other technical issues, don’t be afraid to ask. Someone will be glad to help. Check it again and again before you send it off. Finally, if you get a good setup with the margins, paging, and layout the way you like it, save it as a template into which you can copy-and-paste your next book – a piece at a time, so not to mess up your carefully constructed formatting.

If you’re writing a book, remember from your own experiences as a reader, and think about how you want your book to look and present itself, in addition to the actual words inside. It’s like your child, and you want it to make a great first impression!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Connecting Sherlock Holmes to Bloom County - But Just Barely . . . .

As I’ve been finishing up the final editing on The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, with all royalties going toward the restoration of Undershaw . . .

. . . I’ve been overjoyed to be able to visit an old friend, here again after a long absence: Bloom County is back! It’s now appearing at Berkeley Breathed’s Facebook page, with new strips appearing every few days.

It pains me to think that some of you don’t even know what Bloom County is. Well, keep reading, and you can even see how (or if) I (barely) tie it to Sherlock Holmes.

Many people probably think that my recreational reading is solely concerned with the activities of Mr. Holmes. This isn't the case, as I’ll no doubt explain in other blogs, and a great example of another interest is my enjoyment over the years of Berkeley Breathed’s cartoons. I first found Bloom County in 1984, when I was a sophomore in college and observed friends reading it. I didn’t know who the characters were then. It was like sitting down to watch a long-running television show and figuring out who is who from the context. At that time, there were only a couple of published Bloom County books available for someone like me to catch up on what he’d missed, but I bought them and re-read them endlessly. And I started following the strip in the daily newspaper.

Not long after, I found the latest Doonesbury book and read it as well. I’ve since collected all of the Doonesbury books, and continue to read it to the present, even now in its abbreviated weekend format. I also devoured The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes as well, but to me, Bloom County is and always has been the very best of them.

When I was a junior in college, I started drawing my own cartoon. It was extremely libelous and never published in the school newspaper. Only selected friends and trusted college staff members were allowed to read it. It was 100% popular in its extremely limited market, and for a time I thought I might pursue cartooning. (That was the same vague time when I was switching my major from music to business management, so anything was possible.) Around then, one of the librarians where I worked as a student assistant – and one of my faithful readers – attended a convention and brought back a signed copy of Breathed’s Penguin Dreams and Stranger Things (1985). It’s still a treasured possession.

I spent part of the summer of 1986 staying with a friend in Washington, D.C. While he held down an intern job during the day, I explored the city. I spent several afternoons in the Library of Congress, requesting and viewing microfiche of old issues of the Washington Post, where Bloom County first ran. It was strange to see all of the strips that appeared before the ones collected in the first book. It was almost like a different strip entirely.

During that period, Breathed started marketing character dolls in various poses, mostly featuring Bloom County’s most famous character, Opus. College friends began buying them for me to mark special occasions, and I soon had a shelf full of them in my dorm room. (And I still have them.)

Unfortunately, for a year or so then my mother decided that I apparently liked penguins in general, and I couldn’t get her to understand that Opus was different. I ended up with quite a few little knick-knacks with penguins on them before I could get her to stop. It almost sounds like something that would happen to a character in Bloom County.

I had once been given a little Sherlock Holmes bear, and I discovered that his deerstalker looked much better on Opus. The other day, as I’ve been editing the new Sherlock Holmes collection, I decided to pull him back out of storage to honor the return of Bloom County and the upcoming Holmes anthology, The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories:

In 1988, about a month after my wife and I were married, we were in New Orleans for her to attend a conference. As I wandered the city during the day, waiting for her to be liberated, I found another doll, this time of Bill the Cat. That ended up being my New Orleans souvenir, and another early indicator to my wife about what to expect from me.

Mr. Breathed ended Bloom County in 1989, but he returned with Sunday-only comics featuring some of the Bloom County characters, the first being Outland (1989-1995), and then Opus (2003-2008). Throughout that time, he continued to publish collections of the strips, as well as many well-regarded children’s books. Later, IDW began issuing the complete run of all the Bloom County-related comics in really excellent hardcover editions, filling in all the missing strips that weren’t included in the previous collections.

At about the same time a few weeks ago that I learned that Bloom County had returned on Facebook, I also saw that IDW had just published a new book of Breathed’s complete cartoons that had been drawn for his college newspaper. Berkley Breathed’s Academia Waltz has cartoons from 1975-1980, and gives valuable insights to what would become Bloom County, as well as showing where ideas and characters were first tested. It’s fascinating to read this book, and I highly recommend it, along with all the other IDW entries. I’ve just finished it, and I’m continuing right on into re-reading the first of IDW’s Bloom County titles.

So that’s how I tied Bloom County to Sherlock Holmes – barely. They’re both in my head right now, and I’m currently being visited by the deerstalker-wearing Opus. I think that Mr. Breathed missed out by not putting Opus in a deerstalker long ago, but now that Bloom County is back, and the marketing machine will likely be starting up again, it isn’t too late, especially considering that, while Bloom County has been gone for a while, Sherlock Holmes never left, and he's more popular than ever!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Sherlock Holmes Meets Henry James – Two New Stories by Daniel D. Victor and Dan Simmons

I’ll be the first to admit that, while I had heard of author Henry James, I knew very little about him. The first time I went through college, at the normal college age to get a Business Management degree, I took all the general courses that give one a broad base as an enlightened human – literature, the arts, etc. (I was glad to have all under my belt when I went back for a second time to get an engineering degree.)

But, during that first pass through college, Mr. Henry James was not really covered or even mentioned, as my teachers favored Greek tragedies and then a big jump to Germanic Romanticism. (I still have The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann von Goethe stuck in my head – talk about something I’d like to push out of my brain attic. I even hear the way the teacher pronounced it – Vair-ta – as opposed to the way I wanted to say it at the time, the same way one pronounces the name of that wonderful candy – Wer-ther. I can’t look at those now without at least saying once in my head Vair-ta’s Original Caramels.)

But I digress, which ought to be the real name of this blog.

My wife, who has a couple of Master’s Degrees, one in English literature – and I know Henry James was an American – doesn’t have a high opinion of him. Still, I had heard of him, but barely, and that’s all I needed or wanted to know.

Now, however, I’ve recently read two different stories where James interacts with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and I can say that I still don’t need to know anymore, but at least I do know a little bit more, and I’ll tuck that part away in my brain attic for possible future use in a conversation somewhere down the road.

The first story where I encountered Henry James was in “The Adventure of the Aspen Papers” by Daniel D. Victor. This will be published this autumn in Part I of the massive new anthology, The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories.

When I conceived the idea of putting together this anthology, I combed the shelves of my Holmes collection in order to identify authors that I wished to participate. I had really enjoyed Mr. Victor’s first Holmes novel, The Seventh Bullet, back in 1992. (It has since been reissued by Titan.) I first found it in a bookstore in Baltimore, where I was spending ten weeks as a Federal Investigator, temporarily detailed to that area. Your tax dollars were putting me up in an apartment in a high-rise overlooking the Inner Harbor, and I remember reading and enjoying that book while enjoying the view and wanting to come home.

More recently, Mr. Victor has been writing a series known as the “American Literati” for MX, in which Holmes encounters famous literary figures. In The Final Page of Baker Street, he meets young Raymond Chandler, who serves as one of Holmes’s pages. In the upcoming Sherlock Holmes and the Baron of Brede Place, he becomes involved in the affairs of Stephen Crane. He is also currently working on another Holmes novel.

When I asked him to write a story for the anthology, he agreed immediately, and soon sent me “The Adventure of the Aspen Papers,” in which Henry James visits Baker Street in October 1887 to hire Holmes to locate a missing friend who is on the trail of a hidden literary trove. Although not labeled as such, this tale, featuring a visit from the American Henry James, is clearly a part of Mr. Victor’s ongoing “American Literati” series. I hope that, in addition to writing more of the novels, Mr. Victor comes up with a whole volume of more of these short stories, because I’d love to read them. I enjoyed this one very much, and it gives both an interesting case for Holmes and Watson, and also a quick thumbnail portrait of Henry James.

Soon after I received and read Mr. Victor’s story, I obtained another tale about an encounter between Holmes and Henry James. This one, substantially longer, is a 600+ page novel by Dan Simmons, The Fifth Heart.

Set in the spring of 1893, Holmes encounters James while doing undercover work for Mycroft during The Great Hiatus. James recalls meeting Holmes several years earlier - not during the events of Mr. Victor’s story. Holmes’s current investigation into a global anarchistic plot has connections to events that took place several years before amongst a group of people living in Washington, D.C. These people are friends of James, and Holmes recruits him to help with the resolution of what occurred before, and also to defeat the current conspiracy.

This book was interesting, although it was padded a little too heavily with factoids about life in 1893. (People who were actually living in those times probably wouldn’t have had conversations where they worked in so many of these things for the benefit of us, the readers – they would have just known it already.) This book presented a different viewpoint of Holmes and his frantic activities during the Great Hiatus. (Those who think that Holmes just sat around in Tibet for a couple of years, contemplating . . . something need to read more pastiches. He was a very busy man during that period, racing all over the world.)

My biggest problem with this narrative is the same thing that happens in some other people’s pastiches: This author, in trying to be clever, takes some noted and established ideas from the Canon and then reveals his own version of “the truth”, when in fact these jarring revelations simply yank one out of the story entirely. I’ll never understand why, if someone wants to work so hard to bring another Holmes adventure to the world, he or she can’t just do so in the way that has made these stories popular for so long. Instead, the writers find the need to inject their own inventiveness.

Without revealing any too-obvious spoilers, I can say that most of the book is very interesting, but I’ll be skipping some parts when I re-read it next time. Simmons makes some general mistakes, such as getting the ending of “The Copper Beeches” wrong, and he makes up an entirely spurious backstory about Holmes’s origins. Simmons does the same thing with Professor Moriarty that Michael Dibdin did in The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, although in this case it’s for a much more noble purpose. He also has taken a female criminal and her assassin son and incorrectly given her the name of a Canonical character, attempting to tear down the reputation of the true figure, and also libelously fictionalizing whole chunks of the book in order to try to create a shocking relationship between the assassin and his supposed father. I’ll mark all of this down as “Incorrect.

In spite of these parts which try to damage the Canon instead of uplift it, this book for the most part is still enjoyable, although one must read it carefully and with a grain of salt to be aware of the falsehoods. The best part of the book, for me, was Holmes and James’s visit to a certain famed part of a Washington, D.C. cemetery. I’ve previously had no interest in that area, but now I think that I’ll be certain to visit there when I’m next the capital.

Most of this book takes place in Washington, D.C. and New York, with side trips to Connecticut and Chicago. There are a number of other pastiches by other authors set in the spring of 1893 that also have Holmes all over the U.S. during this time, and this story, where Holmes is fighting the anarchist’s intrigue, serves to augment those other stories by explaining why he was in the U.S. then. Some of Holmes’s other adventures in the U.S. during the spring of 1893 are related in the following:

By Philip J. Carraher:
Alias Simon Hawkes (Four short stories: “The Magic Alibi”; “The Captive Forger”; “The Glass Room”, and “The Talking Ghost”)
Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Dead Rabbit’s Society
Sherlock Holmes in New York: The Adventure of the New York Ripper

By Owen Haskell
Sherlock Holmes and the Fall River Tragedy

By Donald W. Holmes
Indian River Trilogy (Two short stories: “The Menacing Midden” and “Barker’s Bluff”)

Stories in Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Years (edited by Michael Kurland, also a contributor to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories)
• “The Mystery of Dr Thorvald Sigerson” – Linda Robertson
• “The Bughouse Caper” – Bill Pronzini
• “The Strange Case of the Voodoo Priestess” – Carole Bugge
• “Cross of Gold” – Michael Collins

By David Marcum (That’s me!)
• “The Adventure of the Brother’s Request” The Papers of Sherlock Holmes –Vol. II

. . . and also in numerous short stories found on the internet.

All in all, I much prefer Mr. Victor’s tale of Henry James and Sherlock Holmes, but both serve as interesting companion pieces. Read them both and decide for yourself!

More about The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories can be found at:

Monday, August 3, 2015

A new blog has arrived . . . .

Well, it’s time for me to make the next leap into a bold new era.

Having been encouraged for quite a while to create a blog, I finally did so, with some trepidation. Here it is, then, a work in progress, a steep learning curve on public display, a location to pass on news, and also a place to let me, on an irregular basis, review and comment on life and the things that entertain or distress me.

If you’re looking for a Seventeen Step Program to cure you of anything, then I’m afraid that this is the wrong place. However, if you know anything about Sherlock Holmes, you’ll recall that his rooms at 221b Baker Street were reached by climbing seventeen steps. Many a client climbed that narrow stairway, seeking assistance and guidance from the Great Detective. Hopefully people will find something of use here.

My name is David Marcum, and the primary purpose of this blog will be to relate thoughts about my interest in things related to the traditional and Canonical stories of Sherlock Holmes. At other times – and don’t expect something every day or even every week – I may comment on other interests as well. (People who know how much time I spend reading and writing about Holmes may find this hard to believe, but I’m actually interested in many other things.)

In the past, I’ve produced several books that relate new adventures of Mr. Holmes. Currently, I’m in the last stages of editing and completing a new and massive Holmes-related project, The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, to be published in the autumn of 2015 by MX Publishing. It’s not too late to get on board by supporting the effort through Kickstarter:

The three-volume hardcover set will have a total of nearly 1,300 pages, and features participation by over 60 of today’s finest Sherlockian writers, both best-selling and up-and-coming. The royalties from the project will be used to benefit the Stepping Stones School at Undershaw, one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former residences that has a strong association with the Holmes stories.

More information about this collection can be found at these links:

I will be back with more information about the anthology, along with other future projects, as it becomes available.

It’s been crazy up to now for me to think about blogging, but now that I’m here, let’s see what happens . . . .