The Life of Johnston

Tag: writing problems

New Year’s Eve

Dear Max,

I’m trying to figure out how fat I’m willing to be. Pretty fat, I think. The problem is that buying new clothes under any circumstances is a loathsome chore. (I used to like it—what happened?) And shopping for fatter clothes just seems intolerable. I’d rather diet. Horrible word. It reminds me of parent, another noun that should have stayed that way. Instead, they both turned into verbs and ruined everybody’s lives. Dieting and parenting. How grim can you get?

Looking that over, I see how unhopeful it sounds. And I started this year by writing, “Of course I adore resolutions. They’re so hopeful.” Anyway, back to my fat. I’ve been writing about it a bit, but not including it in this online diary because it seems so boring and unfeminist. I totally believe in Fat Power! Woman Power! Butt Power! And yet…

Anyway, on December 18 I wrote: I know it’s unseemly to write about my fat, but there it is. I’m forty-seven and putting on weight at roughly the same rate as during early pregnancy. My butt is like a special effect. It’s like HeLa.

Also this: Enzo measured my girth. (His new fish book gives length, weight and girth of record-breaking fish.) I sucked in my stomach and lifted up my robe and pajama top. Cold measuring tape on skin. Thirty inches. “Next, your butt-girth.” He measured around my butt, this time over pajamas and robe (why even try?). “You’re literally four inches away from a four-foot butt-girth.”

To get that story out, I had to break my attempted new policy of not putting Enzo stuff online. Fuck it, it’s my life too.

I see I haven’t arrived at any resolutions yet. All right. I resolve to get up early every morning so I can get some work done. Early means five at the latest. It’s my only hope.

I resolve at some point this year to take some days off work and read my lawyer crime books all at once and figure out what to do with them. I can’t take time off for the next few months, but I hope I don’t forget this one. I made brownies for a snow trip tomorrow, and it made me think of a scene I wrote of two women sitting around eating the long trimmed-off edge pieces from a tray of brownies and talking shit about a judge who wouldn’t dismiss some light rail tickets. It seems sad to abandon them.

And what if I dump my law books and devote myself to my diary, my record, my dear? That’s probably the best plan. But if Enzo really doesn’t want me writing about him—even privately—what am I supposed to do with that?

I understand why he doesn’t like it. Even straight reporting has a feeling of ownership. As Hemingway said, You belong to me now, and I belong to this pencil.

Extra Credit

25 November 2015

Dear Max,

I want extra credit from the universe because I’m still working on that damn fish book. It’s a pain, but at least I have writing problems to write about. Such as: The World! People! Coming! Going! Shit! I feel like it’s all stage directions. I’m talking about my attempt to write a crowded courtroom scene instead of just writing more and more of my favorite thing: witty text messages between the two heroines. (There’s nothing more depressing than non-stop wit.)

Anyway, here is my attempt at a crowded courtroom chapter:

An Unknown Female

Even with his grey-streaked head bowed and reading, Pete Baranek towered over the crowd of lawyers in Department Nine. He nodded hello and held the paper lower so that I could read it too. It was the list of judges who were available for trial. There were only three: Hellman-Zweile, Bell, and a new judge, Adams, an ex-DA from another county.

I pointed to Adams and looked up at Baranek. He shook his head no. Baranek pointed to Bell. I shook my head no. I pointed to Hellman-Zweile. We both nodded. Then Judge Fester, who was presiding in Nine that day, called a five-defendant gang murder and assigned it to Hellman-Zweile. Baranek and I exchanged a glance, and I silently mouthed, Fuck.

“No talking! Quiet in the courtroom!” Fester was looking at me and Baranek, even though our conversation had been silent. Baranek glanced behind us, as if to see who the judge might be scolding. Then, seeing no one, he turned back to Fester with an air of astonished innocence. The court reporter smiled and shook her head. Her fingers hadn’t moved. It was all off the record.

The lawyers and out-of-custody witnesses on the gang case were slowly filing out. When they were gone, the courtroom felt roomy and exposed. Fester called a few more felonies—all continuances—and then called our case last because it was only a misdemeanor. Thao and Cheng were sitting in the audience. They stood up, hesitantly. Baranek waved them forward and then stood with them at the rail that separated the lawyers from the audience, the official bar. Galina stepped into the cage for in-custody defendants, and I walked over and stood next to her. Just a moment before, that cage had been crowded with the five defendants in the gang murder, all kids, but big kids, nineteen, twenty, shoulder to shoulder. Oblonskaya looked tiny with all that space around her. And the cage. I was used to it now, but when it first went up, it made me think of a slave auction. I wondered what price Oblonskaya would fetch. Not much. She was small, and she didn’t look all that biddable. Or maybe I just thought that because she never did anything I said.

“Pete Baranek on behalf of Mr. Cheng and Mr. Thao, who are present out of custody.”

“Maggie Hodge on behalf of Galina Oblonskaya who is present in custody.”

We all looked around for Cross.

“Who’s the DA on this?” said Judge Fester. We didn’t answer. “You,” said Fester to a young DA was standing nearby. “You’re standing in.”


“I’m sending this case out for trial, and you’re standing in. What’s your name?”

“Henry Ortiz.”

“Very good, Mr. Ortiz. Please let Mr. Cross know that this trial has been assigned to Department 22, Judge Adams.

Baranek said, “May we pass this matter for counsel to confer?”

“No you may not. You’ve been conferring all morning in open court.”

“In that case I will exercise a challenge.” We could each do that once, paper a judge we didn’t like with no questions asked. Pete must have had a trial against Adams out of county and not thought much of him.

“Very well. The matter is assigned to Department 15, Judge Bell.”

Bell. The last time I’d been in his courtroom, he jailed me for contempt, and he wasn’t entirely wrong. The few remaining lawyers in the room looked at me. No one had forgotten. I could paper Bell, but then Fester might assign our case to himself, and I would never let Fester sentence a client of mine again, not even on a misdemeanor.

I glanced at Baranek and then saw Jill sitting in the audience just beyond him. She’d dropped off Josh at school and come straight here. She shrugged and raised her upturned palms as if to say, What can you do? I glanced at Oblonskaya, then picked up my briefcase and headed toward the door.

Before I could get there, Cross came in. You might almost say he burst in, and he wasn’t a bursting kind of guy “I’m sorry, Judge,” he said. The court reporter glanced up at Fester, who looked thoroughly annoyed, but he nodded to her, “Let’s go back on the record in the matter of Oblonskaya, Thao and Cheng. Mr. Cross, thank you for joining us.”

“The People wish to file an additional complaint.” Cross gave some papers to the bailiff who handed them to the judge. Then Cross handed copies to me and Baranek.

“Wait here,” I whispered to Oblonskaya, who was still in the cage. I walked over to Jill and we read together. As usual, Jill read much faster. “Oh shit,” she said, so quietly that I wasn’t sure she’d said it at all. My mind was saying the same thing over and over and over.

Judge Fester said to Cross, “Do you want me to arraign her now?”

“Yes.” I hurried back to the cage and stood by Galina. Fester read over the fresh complaint and then said, “Galina Oblonskaya, is that your true name?”


“Between the approximate dates of May 3, 2015 and May 7, 2015, in the city and county of Sacramento, the crime of MURDER, in violation of PENAL CODE SECTION 187(a), a felony, was committed by Galina Oblonskaya, who did unlawfully, and with malice aforethought murder Lida Smyshkova, a human being.” Fester looked up at Galina and me. “You have a right to an attorney. Ms. Hodge already represents you on the misdemeanor, so I’ll appoint her on the felony matter as well.”

I whispered to Galina. “Don’t worry.” She looked at me incredulously.

“The People have one further matter,” said Cross. He handed more papers around. “Judge, we’re requesting a court-ordered DNA swab from Ms. Oblonskaya. Officers located a tracking device under the car where the victim was found shot. Our lab tested multiple swabs and obtained a partial profile from an unknown female.”

“Ms. Hodge?” said Judge Bell. “What is the defense position?” Clang, clang, clang went my head. If the cops really believed that the DNA on the tracking device was from the killer, then comparing it to Galina’s DNA would exonerate her. Because it had to be Jill’s DNA on that device. I ordered myself not to turn around and look at Jill, but I could feel her eyes on me.

“I have no discovery on this,” I said. “I have no idea why the DA even connects my client with this Lydia Smashnova or with this alleged tracking device.”

“Lida Smyshkova,” said Fester, looking down at the complaint.

I turned to Cross, “Give me some discovery and I’ll give you a position.” Cross handed me a stack of paper a few inches thick. It didn’t look like a murder’s worth of police reports.

Fester said, “I’m going to put this case over to next week, back in home court for settlement conference. You can take up the DNA issue at that time. So, May 19 in Department 63 at 8:30. The misdemeanor will trail.” (A trailing misdemeanor is just want it sounds like—a minor case that’s trailing behind a major case, like a little brother or sister tagging along, unwanted but persistent. Unfortunately it’s spelled a lot like trial, which must be a trial for court reporters everywhere.)

Galina whispered to me, “Trail? What trail? What about my speedy trial?”

“On the caviar case—the misdemeanor?”


“The DA will probably just dismiss that eventually. If this murder case has any legs.”

“Well it doesn’t. And I want my trial.”

“Judge,” I said, “My client has never waived time on the misdemeanor. Today is the forty-fifth day. We want to go to trial now.” I tried to signal with my eyes, Actually, Judge, we don’t.

Pete Baranek said, “On behalf of Mr. Cheng and Mr. Thao, I join in counsel’s request to go forward with the misdemeanor.”

Cross said, “The People will be filing a motion to join the two matters, as they are factually related. And I assume counsel does not want to go to trial on the murder charge today.”

Fester put both cases over. Out in the hallway afterward, Jill whispered to me, “Nice touch pretending to forget Lida’s name.”

“Thanks,” I said, though in my panic I really had forgotten.

So that’s that.

But what about biddable? It’s correct but confusing, since I’ve just called up the image of an auction. “She didn’t look all that obedient” is flat, but I’ll probably settle for it. “She looked like trouble” is a snappy cliché. All unsatisfactory.



Easy Mark

9 October 2015

Dear Max,

If I were brave enough, I’d quit my fish book, but that would mean I’ve wasted so much time, and I don’t like that idea at all. Also, I don’t want to abandon the people. But my God it seems pretty hopeless. I have three documents going: one is chapters that at least make sense chronologically. That’s about fifty pages. Another is chapters that make sense in themselves but not in the book. That’s about fifty pages too. And then I have about a hundred pages of outtakes that might be used later.

And what about my diary? I feel what most sensible people do all the time: nothing that happens seems interesting enough to write about. Normally I think everything that happens to me is interesting. I’m like a celebrity in my own mind. But that way of thinking is a habit, and habits can be broken. (I blame my fish book for all this.)


Enzo said, “Petey is stupid, dumb-founded and an easy mark.” He meant it affectionately, of course. He’s in love with that dog. They lie on the floor in each other’s arms, and Enzo sings in his tuneless chanting way, “We’re dancing, we’re dancing.” And then, “We’re kissing, we’re kissing.” He lets Pete lick the inside of his mouth.

And it’s true, Petey isn’t bright. But what I like about Enzo’s description is—he’ll try anything.

Stupid. True, but the wrong feeling.

Dumb-founded. Incorrect, but closer to the right feeling.

An easy mark. Perfect. Petey is so gullible.

When we took him to a crowded dog beach, I didn’t worry that he’d wander off or hurt anybody, but I knew if anyone put a leash on him and led him away, he’d go with his tale wagging and his rangy hind-end swinging from side to side in that fetching way. And of course everyone who sees Petey must covet him. He’s very popular. One day when Teresa didn’t bring him to after-school pick-up, one of the teachers said, “Where’s your giant-headed dog?”

Speaking of dogs, yesterday I was out with Colin, who trusts no one except Teresa, but who loves to walk. We stepped over a fresh dog poop right in the middle of the sidewalk. “I can’t believe people do that!” I thought. And about twenty feet past the poop I became aware that there was a guy about a block behind us walking his dog, and soon they’d be approaching the poop, and he’d probably think it was ours. I went to get a poop bag out of the little plastic dispenser that’s clipped to the leash, but it was empty. So not only was I not going to pick up that poop, I was going to have to leave one of our own when the time came.

I called back to the guy, who was now within about five feet of the poop, “Excuse me! Do you have a poop bag that you could give me?”


He was at the poop now and had a bag out to pick it up.

“Just so you know, that’s not my poop,” I said. He didn’t answer. “It’s also not my dog’s poop.” We both laughed. He caught up and gave me a bag. We were near a corner and walked off in different directions.


Enzo notes:

“Did you know that Bass rhymes with the A-word?”


“Mom! I saw a male squirrel. I saw its nuts. The squirrel’s junk is the size of its head!”


“I’m actually starting to grow hair inside my scabs. And I have so many, I’m going to name them.”


“Do you have any idea how many Jolly Ranchers I managed to get down my gullet?”


“Left-cross plus right-cross equals haymaker.”


“I’ve heard that at Troy there was a river of blood with parts floating in it, like armored breast-plates with like—” And here he pauses, not wanting to say “with the breasts inside them.”

“With torsos?” said Teresa.

“Yeah, with the torsos inside them. I’ve heard there were even some faces.”

Protest Pie

10 September 2015

Dear Max,

I went through my caviar mystery book yesterday, not exactly reading it, but making a list of scenes and trying to figure out what order they might go in. I have two versions going. One’s about a hundred pages. The other is about thirty. They overlap a lot. And I’ve written a whole stretch that’s completely out of order. That is, why do these women keep talking (and talking) about something that hasn’t happened yet?

So, it’s a big fat mess (actually a pathetic skinny mess), and I’ve begun to feel that I may be writing the wrong thing and possibly living the wrong life, at least the wrong writing life.

But I still like working on it. Like isn’t exactly the word, but it takes up my attention in the way that I think writing should. And what do I have to lose by going on?

My diary, that’s what. It’s hard to do both whole-heartedly. All I have are a few notes:

Enzo: “How do you want your bed? Regular, Nice, or Hotel Style?”

Me: “What’s Hotel Style?”

Enzo: “Like on an expensive cruise.”

Me: “Hotel Style.”

This turned out to be: bed roughly made, sheets turned down, Altoids on the pillows.


“I wonder if anyone’s ever mooned Artemis.”


“I’ve got a good idea that actually could end up pretty badly.” I didn’t make a note of what the idea was. It seemed easy to remember at the time, and now it’s gone.


“Want to see my idea of a poor person?” He’s shirtless in the warm night. He sucks in his stomach and flexes his neck to show ribs and tendons. I make a mental note to teach him about hunger.


On Sunday, Enzo and I went to the pool at three and stayed until about five. By the end, most of the pool was in shadow. There was only one other family there. It was warm with slanting yellow light. The white wash-out of full summer seemed behind us. We got a chill in the water and then lay on the still-hot pavement and warmed our bones. I felt fall coming.

Not so fast. Teresa told me it’s supposed to be a hundred and nine degrees tomorrow. Today, a hundred and six.

In protest, I have made a pumpkin pie.

Polishing My Dick

8 July 2015

Dear Max,

I’m wanting to throw a scold into myself for acting like such a prissy perfectionist. I keep re-writing the beginning of my fish book—eight times the charm! And I can tell you it’s ended up pretty charmless. I’ve polished the life right out of it. And in the meantime, what is this story about? (And by the way, it’s not very polished either. It has mistakes, things that don’t make sense.)

I need to remind myself that lawyers and journalists often end up as writers because, for better or worse, we’re professionals. We write for work, and we complete things. So—get on with the story and stop fussing. But I resist the idea of being a professional. It sounds so uninspired. And I know inspiration doesn’t have such a great reputation—at least I’ve never respected it—but I’ll take all the inspiration I can get.

And so I’ve fallen–fuck!–between two stools: too artistic to get any work done; too professional to do anything really surprising. I can’t seem to find the life of the thing, and I’m pissed. Maybe I should take some of this anger and use it to put some life into the book. Anger is a force. It’s energy. It moves. Who cares if it’s destructive? I could use a little destruction right now.

13 July 2015

Dear Max,

I’d have a crisis if I knew how.

I took an Oprah Magazine quiz on Joy and totally flunked it. It seems I can’t tell the difference between Joy and Satisfaction.

Then I took the quiz on Worry and scored in the Chronic Wallowing range. The quiz was full of trick questions, or just things I didn’t understand: “I don’t believe my thoughts.” Strongly agree? Strongly disagree? On a scale of 1 to 5. Does this mean, “I’m aghast at my thoughts—I can’t fucking believe the shit passes through my mind”? (Strongly agree!) or “I think my thoughts are total lies”? (But how would I know that?) But the stumper was, what are my thoughts? I couldn’t remember any. Next question: “I believe life is full of danger.” I’m sure the correct answer was: 5, strongly disagree, which just seems delusional. I gave myself a 3. I know life is full of danger, but I’m distracted enough not to feel scared most of the time.

Catch & Release

11 April 2015

Dear Max,

My fishing mystery is called Catch & Release. Pretty good, huh? But it does imply that the client is going to get out of jail at some point, which means I have to think of a defense, and everything I write is making that more unlikely. She’s very, very guilty. I guess I should mention that the case is about sturgeon poaching and caviar.

On The Good Wife, they never show Alicia having a good time in the law library, and those Good Wife writers know what they’re doing. Nevertheless, here’s my attempt.

Sometimes I go to the law library, pull a book off the shelf at random and read a case on a subject I know nothing about—bankruptcy, probate, trademark. It’s all just people’s lives and troubles, even the corporate stuff. And it’s restful to read with a complete sense of irresponsibility, like a civilian.

I tried to have that attitude as I read the case law on asset forfeiture. I’d never had the DA go after my client’s stuff before because my clients never had any stuff. Even my drug dealers never made money at it. They tended to use as well as sell. Jill knew about forfeiture from representing white collar guys back when she was a lawyer. She’d hated the paper cases, but people who steal a lot of money tend to have a lot of money, and they pay. She’d explained that forfeiture is a civil in rem action. The DA sues your stuff, claiming that you got it by committing a crime. In this case, the defendant was the land and building and all the contents of the A La Russe Market on Greenback Lane, right down to the very last little ball of caviar.

I read United States v. One 107.9 Acre Parcel and People v. Thirty-Two thousand Dollars in United States Currency and One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania (The Plymouth won.) It wasn’t exactly research, more like swimming around in a new area of law to see what it was all about. One case led to another, led to another, and I thought I was starting to get a feel for it, but three unbillable hours later, I wasn’t any closer to knowing what to do.

Stop. Think. What’s the problem? What’s the solution? Fresh paper.

I’d recently been to a training where lawyers who never went near a courtroom taught us to think creatively by making a cluster, which was like a list, but instead of writing the problem at the top of the page, you wrote it in the middle. Then you drew a box around the problem and wrote your ideas all around the box.

I made a rectangle in the middle of the page and wrote ASSET FORFEITURE inside it. Nothing happened. Fresh page. Another box, this time a messy three-dimensional cube. I wrote, THE DA IS TAKING MY CLIENT’S STUFF, which didn’t even fit in the box. Again, a blank.

I texted Jill. “Want to cluster about asset forfeiture?”

She texted back, “Cluster?”

“Write ideas. Think outside the box.”

“OK. Call me.”

“In library. Text?”

A long pause. Then a text came through, “8th Amend!”

“Yeah!” I texted back, “cruel/unusual!”

A brief pause and then a text appeared, “Was thinking excessive fines clause.”

“Double-Yeah!” I texted, and then scribbled 8th amend, excessive fines on the paper, outside the box. It looked legit.

“Lis pendens,” texted Jill, “Did DA file?”

I wrote lis pendens on the paper. I had no idea what it meant, but it sounded real property-ish. Which made sense for the claim on the building.

There was a long pause. Then a another text came through, “Not outside box, but statutory authority?”

I wrote statutory authority on the paper. Most of the cases I’d been reading were about drug money, and they cited the Health & Safety code. Another text came through from Jill, “Check around the 180’s, close to the gang stuff.”


I pulled the Penal Code from the library shelf and found the sections on forfeiture. One said that the DA had to prove that the property he was suing had been obtained by criminal profiteering. Another defined criminal profiteering as making a business out of crime, but only certain crimes, and then, ah-ha, a list! I scanned down from Arson and Bribery, past Mayhem and Pimping, all the way to Violation of Securities Laws.

I texted Jill, “You are genius. No fish and game on list. We win.”

She texted back. “Call me. I get what Cross is up to.”

I gathered up my stuff, shelved all the books and left the library, gliding guiltily past the front desk because I owed fines. Outside the afternoon was warm and sunny and windy, puffy clouds off in the distance scudding across the delta. I called Jill as I walked back to the office.

“What’s wrong?”

“Cross can’t win the forfeiture,” said Jill, “Not on these charges. And he knows it. He just wants her to file a claim.”

“But I just read a case that says her claim to the property isn’t admissible in the criminal case.”

“Not in the DA’s case in chief. But he can use it to impeach her. He’s trying to box her in.”

I was starting to get it. If Oblonskaya testified that she just worked at the store and did what she was told, the DA could use her claim to the property to prove that she owned the store and knew exactly what was going on.

“Can’t we get the forfeiture case dismissed?” I said.

“Sure. But we have to get in the courtroom door. And the only way in the door is to file that claim.”

I was coming up to the office now, and there was Jill on the front steps, phone in hand. We both hung up.

“Damn!” I said.

“Very clever, Mr. Cross,” said Jill, giving the finger to the general direction of the DA’s office.


Writing Problems: Goody!

Dear Max,

Volume II in my Rumpolina of the Bailey series is coming out awfully slowly. It feels like, my God, do I have to do everything? Place, people, plot, weather, food, law. But I am having fun using my real life enemies as minor villains in the story. It’s a harmless, private revenge—invisible and satisfying.

Anyway, writing problems:

Names. Jill and Josh. Too chime-y, like Mother Goose. One of them has to change. But the names have come to seem real to me, so that a change would jar my sense of who they are.

Do you dial a cell phone? Or is dialing just for old rotary style phones? And if you don’t dial, how do you call someone on cell? Do you punch in the number? Tap it in? Poke it? Maybe you just call.

I have one made-up character that I’m very pleased with, and it probably shows, and not in a good way. Anyway, I keep re-describing the character to make sure she’s still there. With the characters that are based on real people (me and my lawyer pals), I just have us talking and doing stuff, no description necessary, we’re already there. I’m not sure which way is right, but they can’t both be right.

In a series book, how do you take care of the reader who hasn’t read the previous books (or book) and also the reader who has? Patrick O’Brian is so good at this. Toward the beginning of each book he finds a way to reintroduce the characters and give a bit of the plot that’s come before. Those passages have to be there for new readers, but they also have a special satisfaction for the long-time fan. You see a familiar world and old friends with fresh eyes.

Writing takes a lot longer than reading, so I spend two or three days writing a page, and it feels like it’s going on forever and must be so boring, but it’s not really going on forever, I’m just taking forever to write it. A few days later, I read that poor labored-over page, and it feels rushed, anxious to please, full of jokes, afraid of slowing down (because that might be boring).

And speaking of pacing—shouldn’t chapters be roughly the same length? I picked up Persuasion to check how long the chapters were and ended up reading it. And the economy, the speed with which she gets through the story, is unbelievable. And never rushed.

Also, does a chapter have a subject? Or does it just have to get through a recognizable chunk of plot? If I had to name a subject for the four pretty shaky chapters I’ve written so far, it would go like this: Chapter One: Hopes and Delusions (Getting Older); Chapter Two: Food and Loneliness; Chapter Three: Courage—Someone In Trouble; Chapter Four: Duty and its Consolations.

Now I have to go write Chapter Five: No Fucking Clue.

Operation Delta Beluga

16 December 2014

Dear Max,

I finished my book and sent sample pages to an agent along with a query letter. I’m tempted to include the letter here as an example of how to grovel and boast at the same time. I spent a lot of time talking about my limitations as a person and a writer: how I hate plot and the one in this book isn’t very interesting and may not even make sense. Then I compared myself to Simenon.

Also, “finished” is a pretty generous way of putting it. Probably, I should read the book. And then write it again. Instead, to keep myself from getting too depressed, I started the next one.

The nice thing about law is the plots come ready made. This time it’s very loosely based on a case I worked on over ten years ago. My client and several other Hmong were accused of catching sturgeon and selling the roe to this Russian guy whose mom made caviar and sold it to other Russians. The Russians also bought some whole sturgeon (not from my client!) and some over-size sturgeon (not from my client!) and sold it to a Russian market in town. It seemed a little hard on my guy that he did almost every single thing within the law—he had a license, he caught a legal-size fish, under the bag limit, and he kept it to eat—except, instead of throwing away the roe, he (allegedly!) got some money for it.

Anyway, it was a huge investigation: Operation Delta Beluga. The feds were involved because the Russians took the caviar across state lines. The cops (or game wardens) had round the clock surveillance, a wired-up undercover agent, two surveillance aircraft, at least one confidential informant and vehicle tracking devices left and right.

The fishermen and the Russians were charged with conspiracy and sale of sport-caught fish. The scary thing about conspiracy is that your client can be charged with every crime committed in furtherance of the conspiracy, even crimes he didn’t know about, committed by people he never met. The DA didn’t do that in our case, but it was hanging over our heads.

In the book there’s the narrator/lawyer/me who just wants to bring the case to some kind of respectable conclusion, get paid and go home—who thinks, Conspiracy? It’s a fish for fuck’s sake! And there’s the author/me who has some sense of why it’s a big deal. I don’t know how to write about this part without sounding awfully grand, but anyway, something about the fact that these fish are ancient and precious and strange; that they’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs and they look it, with their strange scale-less bodies and pearly-metallic scutes; that they give us a sense of geologic time (or evolutionary time); that we upstart primates are late-comers and soon-goers, and after we’re gone, they might still be here the same as they ever were, swimming along the bottom of this big brown river that won’t even have a name anymore. It would be really great not to blow it for them.

Mind you, I haven’t written any of this. These are plans, and the best part of the plan is that in the book I’m going to represent the owner of the Russian market, which means that this weekend I’m going to go there and eat my head off and take a bunch of notes.

I should probably be writing a non-fiction book about all this. But that sounds like a lot of work: interviews, research, things I don’t know how to do. Just getting myself out to the Russian market will take up half my Saturday because it’s way out in Citrus Heights. If I write a made-up story, I can pull most of it out of my ass, which is at least conveniently located.


16 November 2014

Dear Max,

Writing Problems. Goody!

In Chapter 17 the cat is named Bella. In Chapter 26 it’s Betty. Crap.

Toward the end, my people take a trip to San Francisco and order sandwiches at Luccas Deli in the Marina. But Luccas is in the Castro. Lucca is in the Marina. And what about the Lucca Ravioli Company on Valencia?

They walk over the Golden Gate bridge, and the kid character asks about the suicide net. Oops. It’s not there yet.

Worse yet, what are the chances that that walking over the bridge, which happens at the very end, won’t be taken as some idiot symbol? What if it is an idiot symbol? I should lose the bridge, I know, but I want to work in an Enzo quote: “I hate plunging to my doom.”

Driving around the city, my people turn right from Divisidero onto Oak. But is Oak a one-way street? Going the wrong way? If so, that’s fine, but I should mention it. And for reasons that continue to baffle, I’m the only person in the world who can’t use Google Earth Street View, so I can’t check.

It’s funny how these sorts of problems (and they are legion) are such a terrible interruption. It’s like that scene in The Graduate when they drive through Gaviota tunnel in the convertible, and in the story they’re supposed to be driving from San Francisco to LA, but of course the tunnel is only on the Northbound side, and you’re like: Go Back! Wrong Way! And you’re not in the story anymore.

And that’s the fixable stuff. What about the writing problems that are actually character problems? The kind that I’m unlikely to get over at my time of life? I wrote the chapter where the investigator solves the case (oh shit, our client is innocent) and then a fairly plausible series of events leads to her stabbing the true perp in the neck with an 11-gauge brushed titanium knitting needle. And I was just so flummoxed by the whole situation that I wrote it in the plainest of plain jane style. I approve of plain writing, but this was flat. My usual cranky/funny energy wasn’t right, so I didn’t do that, and I didn’t have another gear to go to, except low and slow. So I’m writing it again, and her knees are weak, her heart is pounding and her blood is running cold. Oh dear.

But what I’m trying to get to is: when we were little, we always wanted my mom to read The Dangerous Part: Laura Ingalls clinging to the plank while the rushing flood waters of Plum Creek almost pull her under; Aun Doorback holding up the stone archway so that the other Vikings can escape through the tunnel, and they all know that when he moves, the tunnel is coming down. So I have to rewrite the Dangerous Part, and I don’t know how to do it.

The other thing I’m trying to get to is this, from Trollope’s Autobiography, the chapter titled Novels and the Art of Writing Them:

Among English novels of the present day, and among English novelists, a great division is made. There are sensational novels and anti-sensational, sensational novelists and anti-sensational, sensational readers and anti-sensational. The novelists who are considered to be anti-sensational are generally called realistic. I am realistic. My friend Wilkie Collins is generally supposed to be sensational. The readers who prefer the one are supposed to take delight in the elucidation of character. Those who hold by the other are charmed by the continuation and gradual development of a plot. All this is, I think, a mistake,—which mistake arises from the inability of the imperfect artist to be at the same time realistic and sensational. A good novel should be both, and both in the highest degree. If a novel fail in either, there is a failure in art. Let those readers who believe that they do not like sensational scenes in novels think of some of those passages from our great novelists which have charmed them most:—of Rebecca in the castle with Ivanhoe; of Burley in the cave with Morton; of the mad lady tearing the veil of the expectant bride, in Jane Eyre; of Lady Castlewood as, in her indignation, she explains to the Duke of Hamilton Henry Esmond’s right to be present at the marriage of his Grace with Beatrix;—may I add, of Lady Mason, as she makes her confession at the feet of Sir Peregrine Orme? Will any one say that the authors of these passages have sinned in being over-sensational? No doubt, a string of horrible incidents, bound together without truth in detail, and told as affecting personages without character,—wooden blocks, who cannot make themselves known to the reader as men and women,—does not instruct or amuse, or even fill the mind with awe. Horrors heaped upon horrors, and which are horrors only in themselves, and not as touching any recognised and known person, are not tragic, and soon cease even to horrify. And such would-be tragic elements of a story may be increased without end, and without difficulty. I may tell you of a woman murdered,—murdered in the same street with you, in the next house,—that she was a wife murdered by her husband,—a bride not yet a week a wife. I may add to it for ever. I may say that the murderer roasted her alive. There is no end to it. I may declare that a former wife was treated with equal barbarity; and may assert that, as the murderer was led away to execution, he declared his only sorrow, his only regret to be, that he could not live to treat a third wife after the same fashion. There is nothing so easy as the creation and the cumulation of fearful incidents after this fashion. If such creation and cumulation be the beginning and the end of the novelist’s work,—and novels have been written which seem to be without other attractions,—nothing can be more dull or more useless. But not on that account are we averse to tragedy in prose fiction. As in poetry, so in prose, he who can deal adequately with tragic elements is a greater artist and reaches a higher aim than the writer whose efforts never carry him above the mild walks of everyday life. The Bride of Lammermoor is a tragedy throughout, in spite of its comic elements. The life of Lady Castlewood, of whom I have spoken, is a tragedy. Rochester’s wretched thraldom to his mad wife, in Jane Eyre, is a tragedy. But these stories charm us not simply because they are tragic, but because we feel that men and women with flesh and blood, creatures with whom we can sympathise, are struggling amidst their woes. It all lies in that. No novel is anything, for the purposes either of comedy or tragedy, unless the reader can sympathise with the characters whose names he finds upon the pages. Let an author so tell his tale as to touch his reader’s heart and draw his tears, and he has, so far, done his work well. Truth let there be,—truth of description, truth of character, human truth as to men and women. If there be such truth, I do not know that a novel can be too sensational.

(I do love that man.)

Blurbs & Stumpers

2 November 2014

Dear Max,

Instead of finishing my book, I decided to write some blurbs for it:

  • Rumpolina of the Bailey. In America. With snacks.
  • Love and Work, Crime and Piecrust: Johnston hits the Big Themes in her fiction debut.
  • There’s something wrong with the beginning, but once Johnston gets used to the awful fact that she’s writing fiction, it’s not bad. It does succeed at one thing that was important to the author: giving a sense of the affection that lawyers have for the law.
  • If this book is supposed to be about a trial, why is everyone always eating? Don’t they have work to do?
  • True Crime? (not really) Hardboiled Detective Fiction? (lightly poached) Legal Thriller? (without the suspense) Literary Fiction? (gag me) Chick Lit? (too many rapes). But, even though it’s hard to tell what sort of book it is, it’s pretty fun to read.

You know I love writing problems, and, speaking of too many rapes, writing violence is a huge problem, which I solve by not doing it. I just leave that part out. It’s all in the past, so all I have to include is the fact that it happened, and the very little that I have to include is in the dry language of police reports. Still, there’s still something uneasy-making about it. When I did criminal defense in real life, I never had any problem with the violence. I wasn’t responsible for it. But what I write, I’m responsible for. Ew.

More writing problems:

Just because it happened in real life, doesn’t mean you can use it. How many times do I have to learn that? Real life has no taste, no sense of proportion, clichés and cuteness abound, stereotype is rife, people say perfect, off-the-cuff things that instantly become lines you write them down.

This brought on because I told one of Enzo’s pals that I like his red hair because it makes him easy to spot on the playground, and he said, “If you ever see a gleam of light shining, that’s me.” And I wanted to use that. I gave the kid in my book red hair so that I could use that. And now I don’t think I can. Well, I may brazen it out. (I have an awful feeling that I’ve written all this before.)

Another example: the real-life Jill is my lawyer pal Karol, and she has a Harley. So I gave Jill in the book a Harley. And I’m not sure I can. It seems like too easy a way to signal: she may be old and a lawyer, but she’s still cool. I might have to make it a Ducati.

And here’s a real stumper: With a first-person narrator, how do you tell the parts that the narrator wasn’t around for? In a brilliant stroke, I got myself remanded to custody for contempt of court (in the book, in the book). Now Jill has to solve the case while I’m in jail. But, I’m not there to see and hear how she does it, so how do I tell it? Gee.


Critical Dispatches

Reports from my somewhat unusual life

DrLearnALot's House of Edumacation

Seize the tools and tell a story.


My time with rescue dogs


A blog full of humorous and poignant observations.


A writing site

Thirteenth Dimension

The words of Rob Diaz

Today's Author

Fostering a community of creative writers through articles, comments, writing prompts and a healthy, supportive environment.

Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue

Publishing and writing insider industry news

William Lloyd (Author)

The only way to be noticed is to be talked about...

Catch & Release

A courtroom drama type mystery, sort of Rumpole of the Bailey meets Prime Suspect in American with snacks.

Maybe someone should write that down...

Writerly ways for Family Historians and Storytellers

Bookshelf Battle

The only site where new bestsellers are forced to do battle for space on a nerd's bookshelf.

Publishing Insights

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose / The more things change, the more they stay the same

Captain's Log

Life On A Different Plane (The only way to get there is together.)