There are eight days left in 2012 and a lot can happen in such a short period of time, but even so, I’ve spent much of December taking stock of things and looking ahead to the new year. This happens annually but this time I feel a greater determination to the point of impatience to get better as a writer and journalist, and more importantly, as a human being.
2012 was strange. My father died, which conferred a proper adulthood everyone goes through but you wish upon no one, and which affected everything I did, every decision I made, consciously or otherwise. Yet in every other way it was a really excellent year. I became an American citizen. My job keeps serving up new challenges and opportunities every day (that morning deadline!). I got another crime fiction column, this time focusing only on Canadian crime, with the National Post. The anthology is getting closer to being a tangible thing, and once it’s typeset and copyedited I think I’ll believe it’s real, until the next milestone when I can believe it’s real all over again.
This year, too, was the one in which I can likely look back and see the career turning point. I turn 34 in a couple of months and while that’s nowhere near middle-aged, I feel that distance from the twentysomething need and ability to churn out copy. I don’t have that desire anymore. There were fewer pieces, but more of them mattered to me and required more time, more reporting, more rounds of edits, just generally more. That’s a good thing. For me, it came down to this: instead of pitching a publication because it was a publication, and finding ideas to suit, I spent more time on pieces I felt compelled to write, and would find a way to work on no matter who published them. I’d like to do more of that next year and thereafter.
(Now, it could be said that I still churn quite a lot of copy for my job, but the difference is that PM is first and foremost an intelligence service for the book trade, and everything — what we report, and especially what we don’t — functions in relation to that credo. And the intelligence, in the form of databases and now the bookstore, is built to last.)
I look at a lot of talented younger writers who are in the grips of the online copy churn and I worry. Will they be able to break free and stretch themselves in longer or more substantive projects? Or even if they do, will their writing be worse off because there isn’t the depth or care from taking things a little more slowly? Will they be able to move away from their crutch topic — say, TV recaps, or book reviews, or first-reaction mini-essays — for other things? Or will they, as happens over and over again with talented people, calcify, get stuck, settle for what they have until it’s too late? A few friends of mine got book deals and I felt such relief, because those projects will open doors for them that would never spring open otherwise. Not every one has a book in them, though. Or the right book at the right time. Then what?
This is advice mostly to myself, but if it reaches others, that would be great. And it is this: make every word count. If you want to conflate it to being about some kind of “legacy” that’s fine, but when time is so precious why spend it on stuff that has a greater probability of disappearing? So yes, whenever possible, I’m going to make every word count, because that’s the only way I know how to get better in what I do.
Here are the pieces I wrote and/or published in 2012 that counted the most:
On the Mysterious Disappearance of Peter Winston (New York Observer, July)
On Dorothy B. Hughes, my all-time favorite crime writer (LARB, August)
On Ingeborg Day and what her two memoirs — the pseudonymous Nine and a Half Weeks and the even more disquieting Ghost Waltz — reveal about her. (New Yorker’s Page-Turner, November)
On Penelope Gilliatt, who shared the New Yorker film critic bill with Pauline Kael and was an astute writer in her own right, when her demons weren’t getting in the way. (Slate, January)
On James W. Hall’s HIT LIT and what it says about contemporary bestsellers (NPR.org, April)
On Joseph Koenig’s return to crime writing after a twenty-year hiatus with FALSE NEGATIVE (Wall Street Journal, June)
Short stories in LONG ISLAND NOIR (“Past President”) and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (“Cog in the Wheel”, the December issue)
The blanket introduction to the University of Chicago Press reissues of Richard Stark’s THE DAMSEL, THE DAME, and THE BLACKBIRD, the first three novels that featured Alan Grofield — normally Parker’s sidekick — as the (anti)-hero.
And though these weren’t exactly put through rigorous editing, I enjoyed riffing on what it takes to be a publishing reporter, literary world life lessons, publishing serious nonfiction in the digital age, things about publishing that are critical and hardly discussed, and what to read next after Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL. Plus the Shel Silverstein Video Archive, which I’ll certainly be adding to in 2013 whenever possible!