Writing “Out of Tune Piano Blues”

Could I write a mystery novel?

Would it be any good?

Nine and Fifty-Four

I no sooner learned the magic of quote-marks, at nine years old, than a grown-up threw cold water on my attempt to write fiction; but at 54, I turned to it to help deal with stress in another arena. Meanwhile, I’d become a professional pianist, college teacher, and occasional writer of non-fiction. I’d read a lot of fiction, including lots of mysteries, in which I admired the work of Chandler, Constantine, Hillerman, Simenon, Sjöwall & Wahlöö, Hammett, and Saylor, among others. Reading and re-reading their novels, and Chandler’s letters, did not make writing look easier, but did strengthen my urge to try it. Lodged in my mind was Chandler’s remark that what interested him was “the creation of emotion through dialog and description.” I was struck by his omitting narration!

My mystery novel would likely be lousy; but it was just for myself, after all. I would learn from the process, and it would distract me from my troubles. “Write what you know,” they say; so I would write about musicians, with a pianist as narrator, and try to show what’s behind the scenes in musicians’ lives.

As well as I recall now, 17 years later, I no sooner decided to attempt this project than I found story and narrator in my mind, along with a first sentence: “The plane bounced, and Beethoven fell off my lap.” Somehow I knew that the speaker was a touring pianist named Arthur Singer; that he was spending a week at a university in Wisconsin; and, from the evidence of that sentence, that the tone of the book would be light-hearted.

But many questions arose in my mind, too. Would Arthur and the other characters—whoever they were—”come off the page”? Could I convey musicians’ outer and inner lives: what it’s like to practice, teach, and perform? The difficulties of making a career, and the stresses of even a successful one? The struggle within some musicians—perhaps especially women—between self-image and sense of vocation on the one hand, and personal and professional pressures on the other hand; and how this tension can lead to stasis and even tragedy?

I’d never read fiction that portrayed any of this convincingly; but it was all essential to my story, so I had to be convincing. Some task for a novice! But I took comfort that while I was a beginner at fiction, I was not a beginner at writing; and I was familiar with the musician’s life. I’d been at the piano from age seven; performed publicly from 12; given lessons starting at 22. I produced and engineered my own albums, taught a music-science course at a famous college, and wrote about all these fields.


An Unexpected Question

Sitting down to the computer, I put my hands on the keyboard, as at the piano; and…I could not write! A new question had arisen, an unforeseen question that froze me in place: Could I kill one of my characters?

For I didn’t intend to write a “puzzle mystery,” in which cardboard characters were killed casually, like cowboys in a “B” Western, popping up ready for more. At the piano, I wasn’t interested in playing trivial pieces; and in my novel, too, I wanted the death to have emotional weight: to resonate in the lives of the other characters, to move the reader; to matter. But if it had weight and was real, then wasn’t I guilty of it?

The obvious answer—I see now—was “No”; or better, “This crime leaves no body and does not insult law or society. It’s purely literary and artistic. If you want to take responsibility for it, go ahead—much good may it do you.” It never occurred to me, for instance, to ask whether the responsibility didn’t belong to the character or characters who caused the death. Shouldn’t they have been intermediaries, at least, between the fictional world and my real, all-too-available sense of guilt?

Music has no such questions; maybe that’s why I was thrown by this one. But thrown I was; and the moral issue—as I conceived it to be—kept bugging me. I don’t know how I solved it—I didn’t know at the time—but after two weeks, it had somehow dissolved, and I was ready for two writing exercises I had thought up. I had to succeed at both to even attempt the novel.


Five-Finger Exercises

First I chose from my story a scene of two men talking, and typed their words as I imagined them. The result was unconvincing, so I rewrote. And rewrote. A voice in my head was dismissive: “Who are you kidding? You’re just saying these guys are saying these things!” I remembered Capote’s wicked remark about Kerouac’s “On the Road”: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Yes, typing was what I was doing! I was stymied and discouraged. My mind wasn’t good enough.

Then I realized that my conscious mind wasn’t good enough at the piano, either. I relied on my unconscious for creative understanding of the music. I should try the same in writing. So I imagined myself listening to the two men. I hoped this would prime the pump. And on the third day, one of them said something I’d had no prior idea of! Then the other one did, too; and they continued to the end of the scene. I was on my way as a bad writer.

Next I chose a scene I thought would be tougher. For one thing, it included a woman; I assumed she would be more difficult for me to voice convincingly. She was recounting an emotionally loaded event from her past, so the psychology had to be convincing, too. (This became Chapters 41 and 42.) I asked my wife and a few friends—all experienced and subtle readers—if they believed in her as a real woman talking about real experience. They did! That gave me the go-ahead in my own mind for starting the novel; and established a group of “Constant Readers” whose responses were valuable through the eleven years of writing. They no doubt got tired of my perennial questions: “Does it come off the page? Is it worth the words?”


From the Beginning

Characters were appearing in my mind, in more or less sketchy fashion; and intimations of the social, institutional and topographic setting. I was hearing and jotting down things that I guessed would come later—I didn’t know when—and having inklings that this book would not be light-hearted after all. How likely was that, really, if there’s a death that’s supposed to have weight?

I began from that opening sentence, conveying as much as possible through dialog rather than narrative; and writing fast for the best chance of controlling tone and texture. Even fast writing is much slower than reading, and what works for either one may not work for the other, just as slow practice at the piano may give a completely wrong idea of a piece of music. To minimize this problem, I would constantly read aloud what I’d just written, whether a sentence or a chapter.

Thus I spent Saturday afternoons balanced between my Unconscious, for “listening” to what I then wrote down; and my Conscious, for planning, and for learning the thousand and one things I needed to know. Wisconsin slang, forensic entomology, ancient Jewish marriage laws, Catholic views of sin, the loudness of gunshots, and college students’ tastes in poetry circa 1995 (same as in 1965: e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, the Rubaiyat). Ordinances for places of entertainment, how a fingerprint on a shell may be fixed in place when the shell is fired, whether revolvers have safeties (no), and bridge failures in California. Economics of university music departments and their piano sales, “cop talk” and 10-codes, the meaning of a white wedding-dress in Japan. The Grange movement, and recipes for gumbo.

The Web supplied a good deal of such information; but most came from experts, who were astoundingly generous with their time and knowledge; and in fact, eager to share. Out of 125 or more whom I asked for help, only one or two declined.

The process exploded some of my stereotypes; in particular, police officers of several cities, gun-makers, members of the armed forces, and others from what I thought of as “the gun culture” were not just knowledgeable and helpful, but notably sensitive people.


The Process

I would write a chapter, learning along the way what I needed to know; and if a quick Web search was enough, the sense of “dreaming the writing” might not be interrupted. Chapter length varied greatly; I see that at one point I exhorted myself, “Make chapters short enough to read aloud at one sitting; and to rewrite in one day, so you don’t lose the flow.”

From having read Jane Austen aloud with my family, I took 3000 words as an approximate maximum for reading at one sitting; and I split my longest chapter to avoid over-running this limit; it became Chapters 18 and 19. Chapter length is a result partly of how much material accrued to each chapter, and partly what sequence of lengths I thought would be most engaging. Chapters shorter than one page (Chapters 23, 31, 38, 39, 44, 53 and 56) can help establish an attractive reading rhythm—and their brevity can have a powerful rhetorical effect.

I learned the truth of Chandler’s remark that writing “is hard work in the sense that it may leave you tired, even exhausted. In the sense of conscious effort it is not work at all.” Writing was one of the most exhilarating experiences in my life; equal perhaps to piano performance; better than practicing.

Writing a chapter might take two or three half-days’ work; and after hearing from my Constant Readers, and re-writing if necessary, I would go on to the next chapter in order. Only once could I not continue; and I sat until Fumiko stepped out of the shadows and murmured that I’d misrepresented her. I re-read the end of the previous chapter and of course she was right. Twenty minutes was enough to correct the error, and then I had no trouble continuing.


A Machine With An Esthetic Purpose

“A work of art is a machine with an esthetic purpose” is an insight that came originally from music. It applies also to fiction; for I could see the words on the page functioning.

In author interviews, one hears clichés like “the characters have voices of their own,” “the characters take over.” I discovered that these are clichés for a reason: this really is simply the way the process works. On one occasion, sitting down to dinner with my family, I heard Reddy’s voice as though he were in the room with us. I raced to the computer to capture his words, with no idea when he would say them in the book. (It turned out to be Chapter 21; and what he said was, “That Death, it confront you sometimes. That’s what happened with Clarissa. I wish I’d told her I loved her more. But what does it matter? You think you’re telling them something they gonna take with them, something they gonna keep. You addin’ cookies to their pantry, your name on the box. But we don’t take nothin’, don’ keep nothin’. You not storin’ up somethin’ in their safe dee-posit box, you understand me?”)

Hearing a character acoustically like that happened only once or twice; what happened more often was that words would appear on the computer screen without passing through my Conscious. I’ve heard writers describe this phenomenon, but have not heard them say what they think is going on. My guess is that, at such moments, the Unconscious links directly to the hands.

I imagine an Everyday Mode in which the Conscious mediates,

Unconscious --> Conscious --> Hand

and a Creative Mode in which the Conscious learns about things only as they go by:

Unconscious --> Hand

Feeling “dissed” by this process, the Conscious naturally thinks this mode, if not evil, at least magical.

I was used to these ideas from my work at the piano, where the Unconscious often provides surprises. Many musicians dismiss these, but I find them a valuable contribution to interpretation.

One further observation about hands and thinking: I had a band-aid on a finger at one point, and noticed that it slowed not only my typing but my thinking!



To keep Capote’s voice at bay, and reassure myself that I wasn’t merely “typing,” I tried to think of tests for the writing. In one of these, I gave Constant Readers a conversation among four people—two straight couples (Chapters 20 and 21); and asked whether one couple were sleeping together. The conversation itself had not a word about this, but the readers all answered correctly, so I thought the writing was conveying something beyond the literal.

In another test, I named pairs of characters and asked which in each pair was smarter. Readers got these right, too; so again I thought something must be coming through.

When the first draft (96,500 words) was done, I went through it and collated the words of each character, listing every word of Arthur’s throughout the book, every word of Reddy’s, and so on—not the “he said, she said,” but every syllable they spoke. Reading each of these straight through helped enormously to tune in to characters’ psychology, speech rhythms, sentence structure, use of prepositions, and so on. One character used the word “would” in an unusual way that affected the story. Arthur, when ebullient, sometimes broke into rhythmic speech.


Writing Experiments

These and other experiments helped test the writing. Sometimes the writing itself was an experiment. In composing music, how a piece should start is an important question with many answers; and I found the same is true in writing—starting a chapter, for instance. One technique is to write a passage in rhythm—in metric prose—always making sure that the transition to non-metric is smooth.

At the intermission of his recital (Chapter 16), Arthur recounts to us his walking off stage, and the recounting is in the rhythm of the Beethoven Bagatelle he’s just played; it even stumbles where Arthur stumbles over the foot of an audience member. I got a big kick out of this!

In that same chapter, amid a crowd of people in the wings, Arthur overhears not so much their words as the tone of their conversations. This was another writing-experiment.

Earlier in the book, in Chapter 12, at lunch in the Student Union cafeteria, there are also multiple conversations described in a non-standard way. And the beginning of Chapter 54 uses meter and the image of a dancing Fred Astaire to convey the joy that Arthur feels. I felt joy in writing it.

The most striking thing to me about these and other experimental passages was that nobody noticed them. This was gratifying in the same way my mother was gratified when she did not get comments on a new piece of furniture. She said that meant it fitted in.


Song-Writing Is Fun!

Lyrics for blues songs appear in Chapters 20 and 21; for skit-show songs, in Chapter 32. I’d intended to include two albums with the book: Arthur’s solo recital, and the songs. But while I’ve written the music, I haven’t found the singers.

Writing songs is pure delight! I’d never done it; but my mother was an accomplished writer of light verse and the occasional song lyric; and on some afternoons, I would return from school to find her writing; and she would ask my opinion of scansion and rhyme in her lines. I’d learned a lot in these moments; more than I’d realized.


Tone and Texture, Intensity

The importance of controlling tone and texture was familiar to me from music and non-fiction; and I knew that Cézanne said, “The picture must have no hole through which the emotion can escape.” A mystery has a special burden in that the revealing of a fact necessary to the plot—the caliber of a pistol, the marital happiness or otherwise of a couple, the character of a piano tuning—forces a certain level of detail, which must not stand out from the surroundings or it will risk betraying itself to the reader. If the level cannot be maintained, it must change in an non-obvious way. Even crude control of such things can be difficult!

Intensity level too, I thought, should be shaped to support the story. Love scenes and music scenes were the easiest to feel and write intensely, and therefore they set a reference level. As for other scenes, it’s easy to say, “Make it more intense”; but not easy to make it so. Emotion may be conveyed implicitly—relying on the reader’s normal human reaction to an event, a remark or a situation. It may be conveyed by a loaded word-choice; or through someone simply asserting that he feels the emotion. Each method has its place in the creation and modulation of the reader’s feelings, which, as in life, are constantly changing in response to the story.

There’s also another kind of intensity: that of the writing-performance. How involved are we as readers, how compelled to keep on reading? I knew that this intensity should always be on High.



These were things I strived for, not things I claim to have achieved! Another such was the quality of “reality.” I’ve long felt that we can tell a fictional account of an event from a factual account—say a newspaper write-up—of an identical real event (not that this specific comparison arises).

My question: what is the difference in the words on the page, between the two kinds of accounts? A reviewer of James Clavell’s novel “Shogun” wrote that one doesn’t read this book, one lives it. I agree; but after six readings, I still have no clue how Clavell created this effect, except for one tiny piece of the puzzle: his use of words ending “ing.” I wrote an essay, “In Love with Sound,” as an experiment in the effect of these words.

Another factor perhaps is that factual descriptions tend to have precise, random elements that “artistic” descriptions lack. The new Raggedy-Ann doll face-up on the curb, the gas bill for $38.76 tucked into next week’s appointment page, the dinged-up trombone with “Daughters of Texas March” in its music-holder. One such element in my book—it sounds silly—is a nick in the edge of the concert piano. Arthur feels it at a stressful moment as he leans back against the instrument, hands behind him; and it comforts him. It comforted me in the writing.



The writing process was surprisingly robust. There were many times when I couldn’t devote every Saturday afternoon to it, so there would be a gap of two or three or more weeks; but the work was always there waiting for me when I returned to it, as though there’d been no gap.

Several times, the gap was six months or longer. After heart surgery, it was 11 months. I was physically able to write at three months, but I knew I was not ready; eight months later, I knew I was ready, and I had no problem continuing. (I started piano practice at three months post-surgery, but it wasn’t fruitful, and I even feared it was counter-productive, like the music-camp summer when I practiced on a spinet. At 12 months post-surgery I could practice decently, if not up to par.)

And when I had written and cleaned up the second draft, not knowing it was the final draft, I woke up one day and simply knew that I was done.



The final draft improved on the first in three ways. I’d been so concerned that Arthur be a good companion for the reader that, in the first draft, I’d toned him down till he was a wall-flower. The next time around, I lost this nervousness, and knew him better, so he came into his own.

A big and crucial improvement came from realizing that there has to be continuous tension, and that it can be of many sorts—of any sort, almost—but it must exist simultaneously on all time-scales, from a paragraph to the whole book. A short one: Arthur’s plane is diverted due to a winter storm; will he get where he’s going in time for his gig? A long one: who killed the victim?

Simply posing a question adds tension; and when I saw the power of this, it stopped seeming meretricious.

The third improvement was that the final draft was one-third shorter than the first. Shorter than “The Great Gatsby” and “The Catcher in the Rye”; not so short as “The Old Man and the Sea.” (I cite these tongue in cheek: it’s amusing to have some aspect of writing in which I can compare my work to that of great writers!)


How did it come out?

To answer the first question at the top, Yes, I could write a mystery novel. “Out of Tune Piano Blues,” ISBN 9780615418414, is available at shop.performancerecordings.com. The media kit, at www.performancerecordings.com/ootpb/ootpb-book.html, includes the first chapter.

The second question—Is it any good?—is trickier, partly because of the all-but-impossibility of getting reviewed. I’ve produced my own concert albums since 1978, releasing them on my own label, Performance Recordings (R). They’ve received warm reviews internationally, but my point here is simply that they have been reviewed in the important English-language review publications, and in French, Swedish and Hungarian. So I was not ready for the situation of self-published books: basically, that reviewers will not look at them. It’s true that Publishers Weekly Select, a quarterly devoted to self-published books, did review mine; and panned it almost exhilaratingly. Constant Readers and I thought the review revealed merely that the reviewer understood nothing of the book; but we would feel that way, wouldn’t we?

And legion are the review venues that won’t consider anything self-published: NPR, PBS, The New York Times, The Washington Post Book World, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, USA Today, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Houston Chronicle, The Oregonian (“We did not receive it, but don’t send another copy”), The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The San Jose Mercury News, The Denver Post, The Dallas News, The Los Angeles Times, The Toledo Blade (my home-town paper). Radio stations WUOM Ann Arbor, KCRW Santa Monica, KPCC Pasadena. Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.

The New York Review of Books will consider self-published mysteries, but explained that it may take five years to get around to any particular submission.


A home for the truth

Had I thought about the matter, I would have realized that a book takes longer than an album to review. Call it an hour to play an album, while reading my book takes—well, at 1,000 words a minute, 65 minutes. At a more likely rate, say three hours. And it’s not just the length, but how many books are submitted for review. The Washington Post Book World reviews 15 books a week, and each day receives 150. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reviews eight or ten per week, and receives 40 per day. The Denver Post receives 200 to 300 per week, and reviews one.

So, as they all say, “we have to draw the line somewhere”; and of course they choose the easiest way. Think how much work it would take to screen out unworthy books from “real” publishers, like the Victorian mystery that depends on a physical impossibility (DC voltage stepped up through a transformer).

And anyway, from having my concerts and albums reviewed, I know how few reviews are responsive to one’s work—a different thing from being positive or negative about it. At least book reviewers needn’t contend with any equivalent of album-reviewers’ bad stereo systems. When the system can’t play an album competently, the result is not only ugly sound but apparent interpretive defects. Almost inevitably, the reviewer hears these as belonging to the original performance. This problem is common; but as the editor of a well-known review magazine told me, “I don’t want to open that can of worms.”

Raymond Chandler, in writing of book reviewing, deplored most critics as mere word-mongers, saying, “The great critics, of whom there are piteously few, build a home for the truth.”

A review of my novel by a great critic would be so useful to me! But my book is probably not worth the time of a great critic. Meanwhile, the remarks from Constant Readers are precious to me. They do after all know the book intimately! Three of them commented as follows:

CR1: “A stunning debut novel exploring loneliness, love and professional identity. A touring performer encounters vivid comic characters, petty moguls—and trouble—at a rural university. James Boyk reveals the inner workings of the soloist’s life in a profound and touching way, with both a romantic interest and a sordid crime that only a musician can help solve.”

CR2: “For lovers of music and mystery, for those who are fascinated by the complexities of human characters as well as the intricacies of detective stories, this book offers a unique blend of both. Literary excellence awards the reader the choice of words that is precise and unexpected and music that penetrates the entire fabric of a story-telling.”

CR3: “The most lyrical love scenes I’ve ever read.”

Next are old friends who saw nothing of the book until reading the published version:

OF1: “The songs throughout are excellent: creative, consistent, funny, insightful. Just excellent. The feel of the irritants and serendipities of concert tours is well handled, and comes alive. Delaying the crime to the middle is the way Sayers would have handled it: one is comfortable with the central characters, and the murder is all the more shocking and disruptive when it occurs. The back and forth between Kaddish and Hail Mary prayers is very good. I read the novel in one sitting. Landscape described as well as Chandler does. You’ve not written a puzzle novel. It’s a lot closer to a police procedural than to a puzzle piece, and it’s not exactly that either. A larger-than-its-genre novel and very good. In many respects the novel isn’t about the crime and its solution anyway. Passion is central. The murder is peripheral, and it turns out to be just another working out of somebody’s passion. It’s a lot like the Sayers novels when Harriet Vane appears in them.”

OF2: “Arthur is a great character, unassuming but with considerable inner resources; understated, rather than overstated, and very easy for a reader to identify with. Style light and airy, very readable. It is a novel of ideas, rather than just plot line. Arthur’s conversations with holy writ are very interesting. I’d like to know Arthur better, and listen to more of his internal dialog. A terrific debut.”

Finally, I’ve had one comment “at arm’s length”; from a complete stranger:

AL1: “Re James Boyk’s ‘Out of Tune Piano Blues’…I had planned to read it after completing my reading of a prize-winning translation of Dostoevsky’s ‘Brothers Karamazov.’ Well, after nodding off several times a few evenings ago, I thought I would begin looking at this more slender volume by Mr. Boyk. And bingo, I snapped into a wakefulness that carried me through the entire book!

“Not wishing to compare these two authors by any means, I was however strongly reminded of how visual in orientation so many authors are (not to mention our own cultural milieu!), and how tiring it often is for me to translate their language into my own as a musician. My own vocabulary of choice reflects primarily auditory and secondarily kinesthetic modes of experiencing my world, and it seems to me that this book exhibits the same dual orientation and thus speaks to me very directly indeed in my own language of sound and movement rather than of visual detail beyond my grasp.

“The story itself is a good one too, and I’m tempted to reread it in the future (something I almost never do). I really doubt that any two musicians experience actual music in quite the same way in the real world. Such wish fulfillment makes for fine romantic, even miraculous, moments in a novel like this one. Such lovers, I tell you!”


What’s Next?

I decided on the title “Out of Tune Piano Blues” only at the end of the process. For the next book, I have no idea of story, characters, tone or texture, but I do have the title: “The Geometry of Fog.”

Will I be able to write it?

Will it be any good?


Los Angeles

June, 2015

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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