Time Is Relative Blog, Day 161: Editing the Past

March 10th, 2011

Reviewing the old Simeon Grist books for e-book publication is always a mixed experience.

I’m most of the way through the ePub of INCINERATOR now, and it’s no exception.

There are some mercilessly overwritten passages, including the worst opening chapter of my entire career, and then there are  long stretches I’d be proud to write now.  I mean really good, by my standards.  These include a long action scene in a derelict supermarket in which fireworks are going off and thousands of birds are rocketing through the building, the whole thing ending in a mistaken police shooting; a big group scene at the old Parker Center that follows the supermarket scene; and a ridiculously complicated sequence on live television, on a show hosted by a fictional Oprah, during which Simeon’s mind finally serves up the beginning of the answer to the Incinerator’s identity.

This scene is probably better than everything but the very best stuff I’ve ever wrote.

The opening chapter is testimony to the principle that starting late in a story isn’t always good advice.  People who write books to show other people how to write books frequently suggest starting late – at a point where the action is already on the rise – rather than dragging the reader through boring pages of normal, everyday life while the story gathers force in the background.  The first 20 pages or so of INCINERATOR comprise a handbook on how to do that wrong.

(Behind this advice, I suspect, is an assumption that the writer who is reading the book about how to write a book is not capable of making everyday life interesting.)

This book had its roots in a letter I got around 1993, from someone who thanked me for a talk I’d had with him while we were both in college.  To hear him tell it, he’d been friendless, isolated, and unhappy.  He’d seen that I seemed to have more friends than I could fit into the Rose Bowl and he’d worked his way into an acquaintance with me just so he could get up the nerve to ask how I made so many friends.

And he did, and we talked for a couple of hours, in one of the piano practice rooms in the music building, which were frequently used for more intimate two-person scenes, and he’d gone out and, bingo, changed his life.

This had carried over into his professional career, and for years he’d been wanting to write and thank me.  And he somehow got my address, and this letter was the result.

I read it, looked at the signature line, and thought, Who?  I had no memory of any of it, including the guy’s name.

So, if I’d been so self-involved in college that I’d completely forgotten this interaction, I asked myself, wasn’t it likely there were also people I’d hurt or offended?  People who, if they saw me tomorrow on the street, would curse me and spit on my shadow?

I know, I know — we wouldn’t worry so much about what people think of us if we knew how infrequently they do.  But this stuck with me, and out of it came the character of a college kid who is described years later by someone who knew him, as “a specimen to be preserved on the end of a pin if there ever was one,” someone whose whole identity was a precarious construct, as most people’s are at that age, and who may have been given a little push in the wrong direction by an oblivious Simeon.

I didn’t realize the idea very well in the book, but it still gives rise to some pretty good moments.

And, although it pains me to do this, I have to give enormous thank-you to our own Everett Kaser — stand up and wave, Everett — who scanned this book, proofed it eight ways from Sunday, and converted it into the cleanest electronic version I’ve ever had of one of these stories. He’s made my life, and the life of Kimberly Hitchens, who produces these for uploading, much, much easier.

Kim is famously grumpy, so Everett’s painstaking work has spared me having my ears nailed to the wall eight or ten times.  Thanks again, Everett.

Wow — thanks to Bonnie yesterday and Everett today. Who’s next — Gary?

8 Responses to “Time Is Relative Blog, Day 161: Editing the Past”

  1. Beth Says:

    I agree that the book is beautifully written, but it is the only book on your list that I won’t review.

    It is so very dark.


  2. EverettK Says:

    [standing up] [waving]

    Ah, shucks, Pardner, ’twas my pleasure, a pure pleasure fair, so to speak. 🙂

    Mostly, I’d reached the point where I was ready to read another Simeon, and it was going to be MONTHS before you got around to making an ebook out of it, and I knew I’d be proofreading it anyway when the time came, so two stones, one bird… er… two birds, one stone.

    Anyway, you’re most welcome, and I was happy to be able to help.

    [The pain that a public “thank you” caused you was just a bonus…]

  3. Suzanna Says:


    What a blessing it is for you to have work to reread, reevaluate, and maybe on some level rewrite in your head as you go along.

    It’s wonderful that you can recognize that even though your earlier work may be flawed it has maintained some great qualities. After all it’s not as though your talent just sprang from the ashes.

    One of the best things about this review process is that you can see how far you’ve come along since those early days, right?

    Also, and I don’t think this is entirely unrelated to your reflecting on your past work, what a great thing that the person who sought your advice was able to acknowledge something that meant so much to him, something you gave to him that changed his life.

    It’s difficult to recall our distant past, or all the people who we encountered and the acts of kindness that may have helped someone along the way but what a great thing that he reached out to tell you that you impacted his life in what sounds like a really positive way.

    On the other hand I think that none of us can say we don’t have a roster of acts we wish we hadn’t been responsible for so thank goodness for faulty memories in that case!

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Apparently, Tim, you have the ability to touch people in many ways.
    Yay, Everett, I look forward to reading your-er, Tim’s work.

  5. micael hallinan Says:

    DUD DAY AFTERNOON–Just thought Id write something so it said 4 comments instead of a lonely 3. Hi Robb,long time.

  6. Tom Logan Says:

    I enjoy reading the comments as much as I like reading your blog. It seems that you have a really good family of friends. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Beth — It sure is. I remembered that accurately. What I didn’t remember was that it was good. The one REALLY bad review of my life was of this book, and the opening sentence was, “Simeon Grist is back, and he’s become tiresome.” And it went downhill from there. Affected the way I thought about the book all the way up to the time when I began to edit it again for this reissue. I don’t know who the woman who wrote the review is, but I hope she’s developed osteoarthritis and grown a second nose.

    Ahh, Everett, it wasn’t as painful as I made it sound. This is hands down the cleanest conversion we’ve had — a few instances of an extra space between double and single quotes, but that’s probably my fault. One or two (and I mean that literally) actual typos “Schutlz” instead of “Schultz” in one place, and a few of those phantom line endings. Actually, most of the changes have been rewrites. Pulling some of the jokes, actually.

    Hi, Suzanna!!! Well, it’s hard for me to believe I was ever much of a positive role model in college, considering my average daily chemical intake and the fact that I was pretty well obsessed with myself. But I was lucky enough to have friends anyway, which sort of amazes me in retrospect. Maybe you’re right about the blessings of faulty memory, because some of what I remember about my behavior during that time is just jaw-dropping. Editing the books is interesting because there are ways I’ve grown and ways I haven’t, and it’s kind of interesting to see which is which. At least there don’t seem to be any areas in which I’ve moved backward. And I still get terrified from time to time when I’m writing, so at least I haven’t lapsed into complacency. I think that’s when it’s time to hang up the old keyboard and quit.

    Lil, if I really did touch people back in those days, I think it was just because they happened to be in the neighborhood on a good day. I was so completely wrapped up with myself that any benefits to others were largely accidental. And I don’t mean all this to suggest I was having a miserable time. I wasn’t. I was having, by and large, a terrific time. it’s just in retrospect that so much of it makes me wince.

    micael, thanks for adding weight to the response. I was getting lonely. And how long is it since you’ve seen Robb? Got to be 40 years.

    Hi, Tom, I actually like reading the comments best, myself. And my wife starts with them and then (sometimes) reads the blog. The people who ahow up here regularly make a big difference to me.

  8. Bonnie Says:

    Tim, I thought of you when I saw this quotation on Dorothy L a couple of days ago (by the gal who likes to post literary tidbits):

    “Never save anything for your next book, because that possible creation may
    not be properly shaped to hold the thoughts you’re working with today. In
    fiction especially, anything that could happen, should happen.”
    Tam Mossman, American editor, writer and art critic

    Not sure whether that should be taken to apply to your jokes. But I guess you can find all sorts of advice on the topic, all of it different, and much of it effective for some subset of authors.

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