Working With an Editor

Not long ago I submitted my first novel to an agent. She responded with several compliments and suggestions for changes and said that if I agreed with her changes and were willing to rewrite, she’d be happy to read it again. I agreed with one of her ideas and rewrote the book with it in mind. Her response was to praise my efforts in rewriting but, sadly, she still felt it was not a good fit for her agency. She said this was a personal opinion and others might disagree and encouraged me to continue submitting to other agents. I was, of course, disappointed but not discouraged; not many players hit a grand slam in their first major league at bat.

I continued to work on it while researching other agents until I decided to start querying again. The next agent to respond asked to see the first chapter only. Of course I wanted everyone to read the whole book before passing judgment but that’s not the way the industry works, so I sent her the first chapter. She too responded with both compliments and criticisms, some of which were similar to those of the first agent. Now I needed to re-read and reconsider what I was submitting.

The first thing that struck me was the need to totally rewrite the first chapter because a lot of the things I felt were interesting and necessary to understanding the story were really backstory rather than the dramatic hook necessary to catch the reader’s attention.

The second thing was that I knew I needed help. Until that point I had resisted the idea of hiring an editor, feeling that my process of constant revision would get me there, eventually. But I had reached a point where I no longer knew what to revise or where to take it. And this is where non-professional friends who were my first readers were unable to help. The time had come.

I’m lucky to have very good friends and one of them recommended an editor he knew and liked. We talked, I liked her too, and hired her. Good move, Scherl. Her work was smart, perceptive, professional and on time. Her method was to simply assume the role of any reader and comment on what she liked, didn’t like, or didn’t understand. Then she wrote a detailed report explaining her comments and connecting them to the whole. She pointed out several characters who, while interesting, really had no effect on the plot. She was particularly acute in recognizing autobiographical details that might be interesting to me, but had nothing to do with the story and, therefore, meant nothing to the reader. There were many other ideas relating to character development and treatment of the plot that led me to realize that the real process of writing this novel began with autobiographical details but developed by moving away from reality into the imagination, while retaining the truth of what I have to say.

She strongly encouraged me to stop submitting to agents before I had made substantial changes because there was potential in this book and I shouldn’t sell it short.

So I’m back at it. I’ve put a hold on Book 2 because what I learn in another revision of Book 1 can only help. A good editor is an enormous help and now, the next time I get on a plane to New York, I can tell my neighbor to please remove his elbow from my ribs and, by the way, I’m going to NY to have lunch with my editor. I always wanted to say that.

Fallen Leaf Lake

The Rhythm of Writing

After many years as a photographer, adapting to the process of writing novels is very much about adjusting the pace of creativity. Photographs record moments, miniscule fragments of time measured in fractions of a second. The creative process may be much longer and may involve such things as travel, research, rearranging the furniture, image processing, editing, sequencing, and printing. But the critical act of framing the subject and releasing the shutter is brief and fleeting. The expression of a portrait subject or the light on a landscape is a momentary thing and capturing that moment is the essence of photographic creativity.

The final product may take months or even years to complete, but that process is usually just a matter of repeating the critical moments of creativity in different circumstances.

Writing fiction is a whole different ballgame, one that involves retraining the brain to accommodate a much longer creative process. Think about stretching that fraction of a second out to the time it takes to write a three hundred page novel; it takes endurance, dedication, and discipline in the face of great odds against success, whether critical or commercial.

I write every day because that’s what it takes for me to maintain the creative process long enough to finish a book. Sure, there are days I accomplish little. I’ve learned to accept them and try to use those days for reading related to my current project. And I adjust my work schedule to accommodate other interests, especially when the Giants are playing.

I try to keep in mind that I may be an accomplished photographer but I’m a novice writer. I’m working on my second novel, while continuing to revise and rewrite the first. These incremental changes take time: some changes necessitate others, and flaws missed on the fifth draft may not be obvious until the tenth. The process makes me feel like a manuscript is never finished. It is, I guess, like a photographer’s portfolio: it may never be perfect, but at some point you have to go out and show it to the people you want to work for. Where I once called on magazine picture editors, now I’m searching for a literary agent. Every industry has its gatekeepers.

I like the task of learning something new, but I’m surprised that I seem to have lost interest in photography so quickly. Earlier this year I was in Paris, a city that has never failed to engage my eye, until now. I passed days at a time without shooting anything, although I did keep a journal. Last week I went to Lake Tahoe with my friend, Tom. It was beautiful. I shot little, more with an iPhone than a Nikon.

In this era of instant and constant communication, of disruption and sharing, I have taken up a practice that is slow, solitary, traditional, and personal. I like it.





Kate Atkinson makes the following comment in a Reader Guide included in the paperback edition of Life After Life: “To research the background of this book, I read as much as possible before beginning and then tried to forget as much as possible and simply write.”

Someday I may write well enough to do that, but right now I’m trying to figure out the Spanish Civil War and it’s making my head hurt. I’m making charts and little study aids, trying to remember that not all Republicans supported the Popular Front government; that the communists were actually the conservatives of the left, and communists come in different flavors, as do monarchists; that the Generals staging a coup liked to refer to the loyalists as “rebels and mutineers;” that the Basques were traditionally conservative and religious but repelled the generals in seeking self-rule; and the Catalans also wanted divorce from Madrid but couldn’t afford to antagonize the anarchists who didn’t want any government at all. But tallying up all the factions is like trying to count stars in the sky and even if you decide on a number, keeping them straight, and figuring out what side they were on is anything but straightforward.

To reduce this war to right vs. left doesn’t really tell the story. It must also be seen as a class struggle, as Catholic-based authoritarian rule vs. libertarian freedom, and of centralized government against regional autonomy. In Spain before the war church and state were one, two pillars of an authoritarian government that suppressed the people with brutality by the state, and a promise of a place in heaven.

On the Republican (Loyalist) side

  • The Popular Front Government of the Republic sought a democratic government dominated by the moderate middle class.
  • Basques and Catalans sought freedom from the state through autonomous self-rule.
  • Anarchists sought to replace the government with local committees of unionists that would govern without leaders.
  • Socialists sought a democratic, socialist central government dominated by the trade unions and an alliance with the anarchists.
  • Soviet communists believed strongly in centralized control.
  • Anti-Stalinist communists did not.

On the Nationalist (fascist) side:

  • Carlists wanted to restore the monarchy of the Borbon Don Carlos line.
  • Traditional monarchists favored the successors of Queen Isabella II
  • Falange wanted a dictatorship of the privileged
  • JONS was the socialist wing of the Falange
  • CEDA was a political alliance of right-wing Catholic parties wanting to re-unite church and state with the power in the church.
  • The Radical Republican Party wanted a religious quasi-democracy.
  • The Liberal Republican Party just wanted to do away with the monarchy.
  • Catalan League were bourgeois industrialists of Barcelona opposed to taxation from Madrid.
  • The Generals wanted power. They saw the government as weak and ineffective, wanted to protect Spain from communist rule, despised the anarchists for everything they believed, had no use for the monarchy and wanted to use the Falange as a particularly brutal military force.

In 1936, the Popular Front government of the Second Republic of Spain had an anarchist inspired revolution on one side, and a military, Catholic, monarchist coup on the other. Its leaders didn’t know which way to turn.

“The ultimate paradox of the liberal Republic represented by its government was that it did not dare defend itself from its own army by giving weapons to the workers who had elected it.” Antony Beevor: The Battle for Spain



Europe Map-Marked

Riga to Hamburg; Capa and Blum

Writing historical fiction can lead you in several directions at once. This morning I was trying to figure out how one could get from Riga to Hamburg in 1905. A little later on, Robert Capa led me to Léon Blum.

Let’s start with the geography. At that time, Riga was in Russia, in the Pale Settlement to be exact, the region where Jews were permitted to live. This region was created by Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century, but the use of the word “pale” as a fenced in area, and the phrase “Beyond the Pale” which we now take to mean “unacceptable” date back to 14th century Ireland. In Russia, the pale was most of the western part of the country, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. There were many Jews.

The first decade of the 20th century was not a great time to be a Jew in Russia: new restrictions were imposed daily and the pogroms spread throughout the Pale. A massive wave of emigration to the west beginning around 1880 and continuing up to the revolution of 1917 saw 2.5 million people leave Russia, the great majority of them Jews. Most went to the United States, the Lower East Side of New York City, to be precise.

The peculiar logic of prejudice dictated that while the Russians from peasants to Czars didn’t want the Jews, they had to make it difficult for them to leave, a last chance to punish. The result, as often happens, was an underground railroad of sorts from Warsaw (in Russia at the time) to the German border. And as happens just as frequently, there were good people of all religions who helped, and there were those who would help for a fee and betray if the other side offered a larger fee.

It would have been possible to travel from Riga to Warsaw by train – perhaps under the pretense of visiting relatives – and then by foot or cart to Germany with the help of friends, or to prison if you were not so lucky. Many young Jewish men who did not make it soon found themselves in the Czar’s army, an honor most did not survive. Those who did make it to Germany had to prove they had tickets on a German shipping line for passage to England or America. Tickets on the lines of French or English companies were often declared invalid since they did nothing for the German economy. The German government was willing to let the Jews pass through their territory, as long as they could profit from it. They also picked up a few marks by housing ticketed passengers waiting for a ship in some hastily built, fenced-in barracks near the docks. When the refugees finally boarded, they were faced with 7-10 days in steerage dormitories, followed by the Ellis Island entrance exams and, if all went well, a Lower East Side tenement.

Léon Blum and Robert Capa


As far as I know, Capa and Blum never met but why not? In 1936, Capa was in France and his photojournalism career was gaining momentum. Blum was creating the leftist coalition dubbed the Popular Front and campaigning as its leader. He would go on to become the first Socialist and first Jewish Prime Minister of France.

Capa did photograph Blum at a campaign rally and that’s the starting point for a fictional scene that allows me to weave them into the plot of a novel that spans the years from 1905 to 1972. Stay tuned, this is going to take a while.


I took a few days off from the Rivesaltes book to work on a photography webinar for a medical laser company, which brought me back into the world of cosmetic medicine.

When I returned from France about 18 months ago, I thought I’d be fine if I could pick up a couple days of work per month from the medical device companies I knew before I left. Didn’t happen, rien, nothing. I built a website dedicated to this specialty and got active on LinkedIn trying to rebuild relationships. Nope.

So I got serious about writing and didn’t think much about photography, even spent a few weeks in Paris and, while I did write a journal, I wound up taking more pictures with my iPhone than my camera. When I got back, I decided to take down the medical photo web site and re-start my blog. The same week, I got three calls about medical photo jobs. Probably just a coincidence.

But it feels like when I was a full-time freelance photographer and business was slow, I used to think all my clients were in a conspiracy to torture me, until they decided I had suffered enough and then they all called at once.

So it’s nice to have a few things to juggle, leaves me less time to worry, and hardly any time at all to beat myself up over things I can’t control. I’m back to work on the Rivesaltes book and researching the plight of the Harkis, those Algerians who chose to fight for France in their country’s war of independence.

More about that in future posts, but I want to return to Robert Capa. Actually this is more about Hemingway. I’ve been reading his last novel, The Garden of Eden, and was discussing it yesterday with Dave Sumner. It’s atypical Hemingway for sure and very surprising in that he deals, in very mannered and sometimes abstract prose with his own bisexuality. David and Catherine Bourne, who cut and dye their hair in the same way, tan their bodies to mahogany, trade sexual roles and make love to an openly bisexual woman can be seen as two sides of the same person. Or not. Perhaps they’re Scott and Zelda or Hemingway and one of his wives. It will never be known and doesn’t really matter.

What struck me as most un-Hemingway of all is David’s passive reaction when Catherine burns the stories he’s been writing throughout the novel. It’s an extremely violent act that I thought would beget a violent reaction. Not at all. He just drifts off with Marita, the other woman.

The novel was unfinished, then severely edited and published posthumously.

My friend Dave suggested that Hemingway like Capa may have constructed an image of himself and then felt compelled to live up to it; Capa became the fearless and carefree combat photographer, Hemingway: the macho, brawling, hunter-warrior.

They were good friends, and while I doubt either one was subject to confessional revelations in their conversations, it would have been interesting to be there, to watch and listen to these two master actors.

Any Hemingway scholars out there? Please add a comment.

Capa Two

Just a few more thoughts on Capa before we move on. Larry Walker’s comment about belief and reality strikes home: “If I believe the Capa snap is a picture of a soldier just killed, lacking any evidence one way or the other, does it matter?”

Capa’s job was to report on the war in support of the Republican cause. He was employed by Vu magazine, and the photos appeared in a special issue supporting the Republicans. He was, in short, a propagandist. If he was shooting training exercises and an editor seeing the picture with the caption, The Falling Soldier chose to believe it was a picture of a man dying, what difference does it make? Either way it succeeds in its purpose, which was to create sympathy for the Republican cause.

I doubt Capa set out to deceive, but he gave at least three different versions of the circumstances of the photo. In one he said that he was ducking down beside the hill and holding the camera over his head when he released the shutter. The film was then sent off to France to be developed. If this is true, he didn’t know what he had captured. When the magazine claimed it was the moment of death, what could Capa do?

If he contradicted the editors, he would lose all credibility, probably forever, and certainly lose his job. He would also damage the cause he passionately supported. Capa was a gambler: sometimes poker, sometimes he put his life on the line. In this case, when everyone felt he held the winning hand, and it would have been foolish to fold, he went all in. Was it a bluff? Maybe. We’ll probably never know, but it makes for a very interesting story.

A fascinating and enigmatic man who hated war and was never happy when he was away from it, Capa spent his life surrounded by beautiful women, poker playing artists, and soldiers fighting for their cause, their country, or just their lives. He wasn’t a very good poker player – Huston would win back all the fees he paid him to shoot stills for his films – and he was never able to commit to any of the women he loved. He was a great war photographer and a dedicated anti-fascist who lost his life covering the ridiculously futile French colonial effort in Vietnam for the vehemently anti-communist Life magazine of Henry Luce. The final irony in a complex life.

Here’s a link to Magnum Photos, the cooperative of photojournalists founded by Capa and others where you can view The Falling Soldier and a whole lot of other great images.

Robert Capa

I intend to use this blog to preview themes and develop ideas for a novel-in-progress. Your comments are welcome.

How do you know what to believe about a man who created a false identity, inhabited it with enthusiasm, and willed himself to actually become that person?

He was born Endre Erno Friedmann on 22 October 1913 in Budapest to middle class Jewish parents. Having trouble getting paid photo assignments in Paris in the early 30’s, he and his lover, Gerda Taro (née Gerta Pohorylle) invented Robert Capa, a brilliant but reclusive American photojournalist whose photos commanded very high fees. Editors never met this “Capa” but Gerda, acting as his agent, sold many photos and procured high profile assignments.

So Friedmann became Capa, and Capa became famous. Picture Post called him “The Greatest War Photographer in the World,” and Capa came to believe it. He was never a great technical photographer, but in the words of his friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson: “Capa knew how to tell a story in pictures.”

He also knew how to promote himself, including writing and publishing a memoir that he freely admitted wasn’t always true, but was the way it should have been. The book, Slightly out of Focus, was always intended to be the basis for a film script and Capa followed it up by becoming friends with writers, actors and directors, such as John Huston, Ingrid Bergman, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn.

He was passionate about left-wing causes and his coverage of the Spanish Civil War is anything but objective journalism, but he was not alone. Writers, artists, and photographers from around the world enlisted in the cause of the Republican government. This was the first battle against fascism and when it was lost, WWII became inevitable.

Capa went on to cover the China-Japan war, WWII, and, finally, the French war in Indochina where he was killed by an anti-personnel mine in 1954.

The problem with Capa is not in his ability or his sympathies, it is in just one photograph, which Capa titled: The Falling Soldier. It’s also been labeled: Death of a Loyalist Militiaman and The Moment of Death. There are a number of questions about the validity of the photo, many stemming from the fact that Capa sent the undeveloped film to Paris, did not provide captions, and the negative has never been found. The name of the subject and the exact location are in dispute, and there is evidence that Capa’s statements on the location and circumstances are false. He claimed in an interview that the soldiers were on an exercise and not expecting combat when a sniper’s bullet hit his subject, but subsequent research has established that there was no combat and no snipers in that area at that time. Some accounts say the man was shot in the head, others in the stomach. Several researchers are convinced it was a machine gun. There is no blood in the photo. There is another photo of a different man apparently being shot in the exact same place. Is this possible, or is it the same scene staged with two different soldiers?

The 1997 discovery of a suitcase with 4500 negatives from the war shot by Capa, Taro and Chim (David Seymour) raised hopes that the controversy could be resolved, but The Falling Soldier was not in the case. Negatives on the same roll shot before and after the famous image are also missing. None of this is very surprising and all of it does not add up to an indictment. Capa was 23 years old in 1936 and still inexperienced as a combat photographer. Spain was in chaos, systems were broken, communication was difficult. There are many reasons why the negative could have been lost and why he might have been confused about the circumstances. And this is in no way meant to denigrate his accomplishments: Capa, Chim, and Taro defined combat photojournalism in Spain, and Capa’s WWII coverage is extraordinary.

But questions remain and that leaves an opening for interpretation. Is it the greatest war photograph ever made, or just an awkwardly composed, slightly out of focus snap of a man tripping on a slippery hillside?

Art lives outside the borders of certainty.



The Return of the Blog

Sounds like a horror movie but it’s only social media. If you’ve found this, you know I’ve moved the blog to and given it a new title: Act II, so that I can defy Fitzgerald’s dictum and launch my next career.

I’m now a writer, feels strange to identify myself that way, but it appears to be true. Most of the cameras are in the closet, and the one I most often carry also makes phone calls. Larry Walker’s been telling me to write a novel for the last 40 years. I finally listened. Thank you Larry. An agent is currently reading it and I really do have high hopes. I think it’s good. I would discount that opinion but there’s been positive feedback from early readers, all of them extraordinary intellects with impeccable taste, most of them very good friends.

We’ll see. I could self-publish but I’m intent on trying the traditional route first. I can’t help it, that’s just who I am. I know self-publishing has worked very well for some writers and I applaud them, and I also know that I can’t expect a traditional publisher to treat me like the second coming of Stephen King, which means that if I do find a publisher, I’m still going to have to work to sell some books. I think it’s a book worthy of publication and I’m proud of it.

It fits in the publishing category of popular fiction, “smart popular fiction” in Barbara’s words. It is somewhat autobiographical in the great tradition of first novels. It tells a fictional story about my time in Maury. Characters are based on people I know, sometimes they’re composites, sometimes the relationship is more direct. The plot is total fiction. There’s a portrait of the village, a bit of a mystery, and lots of stuff about food, wine, and photography.

And the next novel is just beginning to take shape in my brain. More on that in posts to come.

Notice how writer Ron is much more relaxed than photographer Ron:

The Writer ©2014 Jess Holmes

The Writer ©2014 Jess Holmes

The Photographer ©2009 Ron Scherl

The Photographer ©2009 Ron Scherl

All the News

Just because I’ve returned to San Francisco doesn’t mean I’m divorced from France, it’s more a trial separation. A conversation with the Walkers trying to answer the question “what is a novel?” brought up a number of issues about how we fictionalize our lives. Selective memory enables us to rewrite the past and, in the present, we choose what to see and retain, especially when we travel, much as we choose what to include in the frame when we make a photo. So we’re always making stories and a novel is just one way of telling stories, something humans have been doing for a very long time.

J’adore la France, but it’s not easy to explain: I’ll always be a foreigner there and the French do not welcome strangers easily, yet I’m pretty comfortable and could probably live there, although not in a small rural village. I’m too much a city kid.

There’s still lots of Maury in my life: making prints for Tom and Susan, writing about Marcel and Carrie for Helen Tate’s company:

Finding Cuvee Constance in K&L:

followed by a short Facebook conversation with Jean-Roger and Marie.

And there’s fiction too, but that’s not ready for prime time.

San Francisco is home and I’m happy to be here – although I might reconsider if the Giants don’t start playing better – but I miss the friends I made there and I’ll go back.

In the interest of fair play for California wine I stopped off at Tank 18, an urban winery and a new venue for Ann Walker Catering. It’s a nice industrial space South of Market with about six wines purchased and bottled under their own label.

That's bacon caramel corn on the left.

That’s bacon caramel corn on the left.

Mary Ann did some business, Larry and I tasted and then I played with the iPhone’s panorama software and discussed mounting an exhibition here.

Tank 18

Tank 18