It Runs in the Family

My father passed away last night after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. He was 86 years old. I will miss him, but I’m glad that he could slip away peacefully and without the severe pain that so often accompanies cancer.

I’ve noticed as I’ve grown older that some of my father’s mannerisms lurk within me, popping out at unexpected moments. We have a similar sense of humor. Sometimes I’ll realize that what I’ve just said or done was what he would have said or done. And every so often I’ll get a look on my face that prompts my wife to say, “That’s your father’s look. Stop it!”

After I was grown and married, I learned that like me my father was a writer. He’d never had anything published, but he’d written poetry, fiction, and essays. Poetry and I don’t usually get along, but eventually I did have a chance to read some of his fiction. A devoted Christian, religion inspired most of his works. With the rise in digital publishing, he used a print-on-demand outfit to publish one of his novels. A second and probably better novel waited in the wings, but never made it to publication. I haven’t read it in its entirety yet, but I’m considering editing it and arranging for its publication.

One might, therefore, suspect that I got my love of storytelling from my father. But it runs even deeper. A “family story” written by one Wilshire Lehman, one of my distant uncles, details the great westward migration of the Lehman family. Yes, early in the 1800’s, my great-great-great grandfather Adam Lehman (I love to tell people I can trace my family back to Adam!) moved his family from the civilized environs of southeastern Ohio to the “wild west” of Mercer County, practically in Indiana, built a homestead, and in so doing laid the foundations for a story that over a century later would be recorded. Wilshire titled it, “And They Got There.” Decades ago, my father helped arrange the typing and distribution of the manuscript to interested family members, and later had it put into electronic form.

As part of the package, dad wrote a brief introduction to the work, in which he stated, “The Lehmans have always been storytellers.” He noted that Wilshire had, by his own admission, inserted some fictional material into the account in order to make it more interesting. This fascinates me, since my first efforts at storytelling predated any knowledge of such matters. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but I remember composing a very silly little tale when I was young, probably no older than seven. At that time, I didn’t even know how to spell the word “hawk.” (I inserted an “l” before the “w”.) As I grew, I continued to write fictional tales not out of a desire to become rich and famous but simply because I enjoy writing. Why should that be?

Whether nature or nuture I don’t know, but maybe a penchant for storytelling does, somehow, pass from one generation to the next. Other traits do. For example, “And They Got There” portrays Adam as an honest, hard-working man who a weakness: he worries about the unknown. When making plans, he hesitates if he can’t be sure of the outcome and must sometimes force himself to press on. On the surface, this sounds like one of Wilshire’s fictionalizations. The specifics may be. But the trait itself? I have to wonder, because I recognize that as one of my own characteristics: I, too, am prone to hesitation when outcomes are unclear.

So yes, many things may run in families, and storytelling just might be one of them.

The Making of “The Fibonacci Murders”

It began at a traffic light, a red light that stopped me on my way home from work one day. Minds often wander at such moments–at least mine does–and at that particular red light a thought came to me: it would be fun to write a mystery in which a mathematician plays a key role. Deservedly or not, mathematicians have a reputation for quirkiness. I could play that up to good effect.

Not a bad start! But it took two more years before I connected that character with a story. What took so long? Well . . .

Something like a decade earlier, I’d written a science fiction novel and started shopping it around. In those days I was an “aspiring writer,” a polite and encouraging term for a writer who hasn’t made a sale yet. I’d written oodles of short stories, mostly science fiction, but sold none of them. I had also written one longer work, a mystery just barely of novel length.  And then there was my magnum opus, the SF novel Jurek’s Legacy. My first full-length novel, it was arguably the best thing I’d written. I had high hopes of selling it, and set out to find an agent.

Although it may be hard to remember now, at that time there were just two kinds of book publishers. One, real publishers, carefully picked the works they would produce and paid advances and royalties to authors. The other, vanity presses, would produce anything somebody would pay them to produce. Real publishers pay the costs of book production. That’s why they’re so picky about what they produce and reject the vast majority of what they receive. Vanity presses produce just about anything, because they make their money off of writers, not books. As there are always a healthy number of desperate aspiring writers, vanity presses can always find customers.

But I was looking for an agent. I’d collected a few “thanks but no thanks” notes and one agonizingly near miss from an agent who said she loved my work but was closing her business to focus on other things. (Drat!) At just that moment, a fellow writer contacted me to say he’d signed on with an agent and encouraged me to submit my novel to her.  I did. End result? She turned out to be less an agent than a scam artist. She charged a modest up-front fee, then did nothing in return. When I began to press for my money back, she informed me she’d sold my novel, but when the contract arrived, it was from a vanity press.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that knife went in so deep the wound took nearly a decade to heal. I largely stopped writing fiction after that. Possibly I judged myself too harshly, but the words refused to come out right. I did write, but my efforts turned to nonfiction. I sold a couple of technical articles on software development, and later a pair of essays to Sky & Telescope. I contracted with About.com to write content on the Baha’i Faith, and after that venture folded I created a new site, Planet Baha’i, to continue that work. (PB had a good ten-year run before I retired it. It’s been resurrected as an occasional blog.) I was no longer an aspiring writer; I was a published author.

But a fiction writer? Not so much.

And so back to The Fibonacci Murders. Once I had both a character and a story–a series of murders based on the Fibonacci sequence–I got busy writing, and amazingly the result wasn’t half bad. Mathematician Tomio (Tom) Kaneko didn’t turn out as quirky as I’d originally envisioned, but you’ll find his genesis embedded in the first paragraph of the novel:

First I must state two things: I am a mathematician, and I am not crazy. I mention the first because it alone explains my involvement in the events that recently took place in Howard County, Maryland. Otherwise, I would have had no connection to them whatsoever and would have been spared injury. I mention the second for two reasons. First: strangeness is associated in the public mind with my profession, notwithstanding that relatively few mathematicians are odder than the average person. Second: it seems to me the tale I’m about to tell could only have been imagined by a lunatic. Indeed, there was a lunatic. But he was not I.

So there you have it. Where the story itself came from, how the detectives wandered in, and how they caught the culprit, well ,those are tales for another day.

Success and the Author

Success is a vague term. If you look it up in the dictionary, you’ll find something about favorable or desired outcomes, a measure of succeeding, or attaining certain things such as wealth or favor. Basically, success is a target one aims for, and it may be a fuzzy target.

Take my book signing this past weekend, for example. I sold six books and gave away a number of bookmarks, both to people who made purchases and to those who did not. It sounds rather meager. But was it a success?

To me, it was. I’m far from well-known. At previous events, I sold between two and four books. Six is a record! Moreover, one fellow I talked to lives on the west coast, so as I quipped to the store employees, I’m now a nationally-known author. (Truth be told, I already was because of previous sales, but it’s fun to say it.) I gained some additional experience with this kind of event and in talking to people about my work, including works in progress. And finally, I have a standing invitation to come back to the store for future events. Overall, that’s not too bad.

Here’s another sense in which I consider myself successful: most people who have read my novels seem to have enjoyed them, and some, by their own account, were blown away by them. Now, I don’t think of myself as being a great writer. At my best, I think I’ve done a fair job, and at my worse I think I’ll never get it right. But I like to think I can at least tell a pretty good story, and the majority of responses to my work so far seem to support that contention. To me that’s success, even on meager sales.

Not that I would mind greater sales. That would be commercial success. Maybe someday that will happen, although it will take a lot of work. Writing is the easy part of being a writer. Selling one’s writing, that’s the hard part, especially in today’s world where anyone can publish a book and so the market is flooded with works competing for attention. You might be surprised at how few copies a first novel released by a major publishing house has to sell to be considered a success, or indeed at how complicated it is to define success in that scenario.

But really, to me success in writing is less about sales than it is about sharing something with readers that they will enjoy. Sales are a mechanism for that sharing and possibly a metric for gauging that enjoyment, but they are in a sense secondary. Another way to put it is that success in writing is more about the giving than the getting.

Which may be a good statement about success in life generally.

The offiical website of author Dale E. Lehman