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Monthly Archives: March 2018

David F. Bischoff: 1951-2018

Dave

If there was any one person who was responsible for my having a career as a writer it was Dave Bischoff, who passed away on March 19 in Eugene, Oregon. I met Dave through the University of Maryland Science Fiction Society and, later, meetings of WSFA, the Washington Science Fiction Association. We both wanted to write science fiction and we fell into an easy collaboration, writing stories based on one another’s ideas, all of which we eventually sold. It was Dave who contacted the editor who would go on to publish our first novel, a collaboration with the awkward title The Seeker. (I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the title we gave it. I believe the original was Seeker from the Stars, but it might already have been claimed.) Ego problems, mostly mine, got in the way of our collaboration but not of our friendship, which continued until his death.

Dave went on to become a prolific science fiction author, probably best known for the Nightworld series and the novelization of the movie War Games. After a few solo novels, I switched to nonfiction writing for young adults, which was a much more dependable market, though later Dave put me in touch with New York editor Bill McCay, who had been recently put in charge of the Hardy Boys series. I ended up writing eleven books for Bill and his successors.

In the late 80s Dave moved from Maryland, where we both lived, to Los Angeles to sell a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation, co-written by our mutual friend Dennis Bailey. It was the first spec script the series had bought that required almost no revision, allowing it to be put into production immediately to fill a gap in the show’s schedule, and it appeared in Season Three as “Tin Man.”

(Long-time Trek fan Dennis deserves serious credit for the script’s production readiness, because he knew the series as well as anybody who hadn’t actually been involved with it on a professional basis.)

Dave and Dennis wrote the first drafts of a second TNG script based on a treatment from another screenwriter and then, after a season as a writer on a low-budget syndicated series called Quest for the Dragon Star, Dave’s TV career faded away. He moved to Eugene, at one time a mecca for science fiction writers, and continued writing books.

The science fiction book market collapsed in the early 2000s. More specifically, the midlist — books that earned a small but dependable income for publishers — collapsed, and that was where Dave was positioned. He self-published for a while, then began selling manuscript coaching services to other writers.

I hadn’t seen Dave in person since the mid 90s, when he looked as good as I’ve ever seen him look, stylishly dressed and surprisingly trim. From then on we stayed in touch by phone and email. He helped me through some bad times, now long over, and for that I remain grateful.

Late in his career Dave was cajoled by a writer named Saul Garnell into reviving some of his old series and self-publishing them. My girlfriend Amy Gilbert, a graphic designer, helped them package the Amazon editions with lovely covers and professional typographic design, though most of the titles were eventually resold to small presses for re-release. You can still find them on Amazon under Dave’s name (as “David,” not “Dave”). You can also find Dave’s final novel, The Noose Club: A Novel of the O.C.L.T., from 2016.

Dave was my second oldest friend, one of only two people from my college days that I still stayed regularly in touch with. I found out about his death yesterday, when Saul contacted me about a brief obituary he found in a Eugene newspaper for a David Bischoff, age 66. By last night it was confirmed: Dave was gone. Details may or may not be forthcoming. (NOTE: Dave’s ex-wife Martha has subsequently announced Dave’s death on Facebook, saying only that it happened “suddenly,” though I assume of natural causes.)

There has been a gratifying outpouring of messages on Facebook from people who knew him, had collaborated with him or simply loved his books. Dave won’t be forgotten any time soon. If I learned any lesson from Dave it was a paradoxical one: You can do anything you want to if you put your mind to it…right up until you can’t.

These days I write mostly for websites, a transition Dave didn’t make. He dropped largely out of sight in the science fiction community and seemed to associate mostly with local friends in Eugene. I knew from his emails that he was having trouble with his health, but he was under medical care and none of the problems seemed life threatening. Until, apparently, they were.

Goodbye, Dave, and may you be remembered as someone who had more friends than you were probably able to count. However you died, I hope you went gently.

 

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ORIGINal Sin: Dan Brown’s Origin

Origin

I had promised myself that I was never going to read anything by Dan Brown, but huge posters for this book followed me all over the United Kingdom last fall as Amy and I made our way across the country by train, looming out of bookstore windows in every town except Oxford, where the main bookstore chose to highlight Allan Hollinghurst instead. (I think Oxford feels that Dan Brown is a bit beneath them. I agree with them.)

I’ll give Brown credit for one thing and one thing only. He knows how to keep a reader turning pages. He doesn’t do this by creating memorable characters, ones that you care about, or by writing in a compelling style, but by the simple trick of withholding information. From the beginning he makes it clear what that information will be about. It’s such a large, audacious and frankly ridiculous subject that he’s withholding information on that I kept reading just to see if, when it was eventually revealed, the revelation would be worth the buildup.

It wasn’t. It didn’t even come close. The whole premise seemed absurd throughout — at times, even Brown’s characters had to admit it was absurd — and at the end it turns out to have been a grand fake-out, a huge Maguffin that exists only to justify a mediocre chase thriller. (Another thing I’ll give Brown credit for is that he knows it’s important to keep putting obstacles in the path of the protagonist, even when those obstacles are rabbits that he pulls out of his threadbare but bottomless hat. It’s surprising how many authors don’t realize you need to do this, at least when you’re writing this kind of thriller.)

But at least I can say I’ve read a Dan Brown novel. It’s not much to brag about, but the next time I say something insulting about Mr. Brown, I’ll have evidence to back me up.

A Mystery Writer Is Born, More or Less: Harry Starke by Blair Howard

Harry Starke - Books 1, 2, 3 (Harry Starke - Dark, Dangerous, Driven) by [Howard, Blair]

Sometimes I read books out of sheer whimsy. It’s a good way to discover interesting novels, though not always novels that are interesting in the way the authors intended.

Last October, my girlfriend Amy and I spent three weeks traveling across the United Kingdom by train. All those long hours parked at a dining table in a non-reserved coach provided a chance to catch up on my reading and I took full advantage of it. I didn’t read the books I’d intended to — now I can’t even remember what books I’d intended to read — but when I saw an ad in my Facebook feed for a series of books that were free to read for Amazon Prime members, I grabbed one on impulse. Or, rather, I grabbed three: the first trilogy of books in the Harry Starke series by Blair Howard.

A glance at the Amazon Look Inside told me a couple of important things about both Howard and the trilogy. The first is that his books are clearly self published. This interested me because, as an editor, I frequently take books by self-published authors and pound them into readable condition. Some of these books are inept and barely readable, which gives me a chance to flex my writing and editing muscles in ways that I find enjoyable and occasionally profitable. Others are fairly well written and allow me to collaborate with authors who need help from a professional but already possess many of the skills they need to go it on their own. It’s a pleasure to work with them.

The second thing I noticed was that Blair Howard knows how to write. The first few paragraphs told me that he could put together a sharp, punchy sentence, which is a more-difficult skill than most would-be writers seem to realize. And the novel had a gripping opening sequence. I decided to download the books and see if Howard knew what to do with a book once he’d started it.

It turned out that he didn’t. Once he’d put together the premise for the first book, titled simply Harry Starke, the story began to unravel. But the premise was strong: Tough guy cop-turned-private-detective Harry Starke sees a beautiful, elegantly dressed woman arguing in a Chattanooga bar with some dodgy-looking underworld types. He spots her again outside, in the wee hours of the morning, fleeing from unknown pursuers. When the woman spots Starke’s she freezes in her tracks — and jumps off a bridge to her death.

Starke understandably wants to know why the woman killed herself. Conveniently, he turns out to have an old friend on the Chattanooga police force, a gorgeous police detective named Kate Gazzara. She agrees to help him solve the case and, oh yeah, to have dinner with him at his luxurious apartment overlooking the city. (Starke, all-around sensitive tough guy that he is, has an unexpected talent for gourmet cooking.) Starke rounds up his staff of specialized investigators and asks them to learn as much as they can about the woman’s background. Soon enough he has a pile of clues and theories.

What’s missing is a real story. Starke sleeps with the gorgeous detective, with whom he has an ongoing relationship. He discovers a connection between the dead woman and a prominent politician. He investigates the politician and surmises that he might be behind the murder.

It’s clear that Howard, talented writer that he obviously is, has yet to master the art of plotting and had no idea how to advance the story beyond its intriguing but rudimentary set-up. There are no real surprises in the pages that follow. The only genuine plot twist, which comes fairly late in the novel, turns out to have nothing to do with the plot and seems to have been added merely so that the book could have a twist. The case essentially solves itself. Most of the conflict comes from Starke beating up suspects to demonstrate what a bad-ass he is and worrying that the gorgeous detective might get tired of his wandering eye and walk back out of his life and bed. By the time the novel looks like it might become compelling, it turns out to be over.

There are two more books in the package and I may or may not plunge ahead and finish reading the trilogy. (A reviewer on Amazon suggests that it starts getting good with the third book.) Howard’s main problem is that, through the miracle of self-publishing, he’s exposed his writing to the reading public before he’s fully honed his storytelling skills. When and if he does, he may become a major contributor to the American detective novel genre. I hope he gets there, but as of this book he’s little more than a talented dilettante. Still, if you find yourself on a long train trip and have an Amazon Prime subscription, you could do worse than to download this trilogy, if only to encourage him to stick at it until he figures out what he’s doing.

EDIT: After writing this, I discovered that Howard had written an earlier series of novels about the Civil War, which explains his proficiency with the written word. This is his first venture into detective fiction, though, and it’s clear that he doesn’t fully understand the genre yet. Detective writing is trickier than it looks and this novel makes it clear that Howard hasn’t learned the tricks yet. But give him time.