Here’s To Another Hundred.

The First Hundred Words

The January-February 2020 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine is a meaty 100 pager (if you count the covers) which is fitting, since this is the first issue of the magazine’s 100th anniversary year. After a tumultuous 2019 that saw the venerable publication’s parent company dissolved and its magazine/website and publishing divisions split up, Writer’s Digest is still at it and raring to go for the next hundred years.

Writers Digest Jan Feb 2020

There was a lot to digest in this issue, from features and columns both familiar and new, including Dima Ghawi’s IndieLab on self and hybrid publishing timetables, Kara Gebhart Uhl’s Meet The Agent profiling John Talbot of the Talbot Fortune Agency and more. Articles included a good one from Steven James: “Now Where Was I?”, addressing how writers can reactivate stalled projects and return to the keyboard after an extended absence…and Jane Friedman’s “Turn The Beat Around”, listing some all-too-common newbie writer mistakes, like rushing to submission or relying on family and friends’ for input instead of industry pro’s and writing associates.

But my favorite by far was Arthur Leeds’ “The First Hundred Words Are The Hardest”, in part because this was a reprint of an article that appeared in the October 1921 issue. The more things change the more they stay the same? You bet. With some minor tweaks for dated book and publication references, Leeds’ article could’ve been drafted today. My takeaway? Whatever the artistic medium, the tools or the venues may evolve but the fundamental challenges remain largely unchanged. In a way, I found that kind of reassuring.

Straight Talk From Courtney Maum.

Montage Half

It’s all very romantic to imagine ourselves trading witticisms with fellow creatives in a fin de siècle Paris café, Weimar Berlin cabaret, postwar Greenwich Village coffeehouse or any burg’s Boho meeting spot. I can count numerous artists, photographers, writers, musicians, actors and dancers among my coworkers, friends and even family members, past and present, and as much as we might like to picture ourselves pontificating on frightfully weighty cultural and aesthetic topics, my own real-world experiences and observations are quite different.

Shoehorn a group of artists into a barroom booth and the talk will most likely be about which art supply store has a Grumbacher promotion running or a BOGO on brushes. Writers will be trading info on paying market submission opportunities, cents-per-word rates and grousing about delayed payments…even if it’s only in contributor copies. The conversations run more or less the same among the garage band and barre-and-ballet shoe crowds.

For all the stereotypes, creatives are more pragmatic than you’d assume, even if only out of necessity – that is, the usual struggles to pay the rent, buy groceries and set aside some beer money like everyone else, but compounded by the need to fund their artistic pursuits, whether they’re buying pre-stretched canvases, stocking up on toner and 20 lb. bond, saving up for Danskins without holes, or worse, replacing a blown-out amp.

Before And After The Book Deal

I thought about all of this as I read Amy Brady’s interview with Courtney Maum, author of Before And After The Book Deal – A Writer’s Guide To Finishing, Publishing, Promoting And Surviving Your First Book at the Chicago Review of Books (link below). Intrigued, I headed to the bookstore right after work, presuming I’d be ordering Maum’s new book, but thrilled to spot a copy already on shelf. One extra-large coffee to-go later, I’d already plunged in, continued through dinner later this evening, but still have a long way to go. But I’m liking this book so much I wanted to share, so I paused to bang out this post.

Browse the writing section in a good-sized library or bookstore and you’ll likely see no shortage of inspirational titles interspersed with a few annual directories and some very elementary how-to books for total newbies and writer-hobbyists. Flip through some writing magazines and you’ll likely see your share of motivational stuff about digging deeper to find your voice, creating three-dimensional characters or crafting dialog that ‘sparkles’. But I suspect many if not most writers are desperate for more straightforward nuts & bolts info about the submission/sale/publication process and are eager for frank discussion about dollars and cents issues. Because that’s precisely what they talk about in person. As do the artists, musicians, dancers and actors.

Courtney Maum’s Before And After The Book Deal is precisely that. And for all its info-packed no-nonsense explanations, it’s incredibly readable, extremely entertaining, and downright funny in a lot of spots. Example: Early on she addresses how writers have to be ready to endure rejection. A lot. She writes, “…you must make friends with rejection in order to survive a professional writing life. Rejection is going to be your zany roommate who never does her dishes, has really loud obnoxious sex, gets drunk and eats your leftovers, and uses strong perfume. Except for that one delightful year that she studied abroad in Cartagana, she’s always going to be living with you in one way or another, so make peace with that chick, now.”

Of course, any scribe whining about the indignities of the query and submission process ought to chat up some musicians, dancers and actors about auditioning.

Though Maum has three novels to her credit, many might rightly ask her “So who appointed you to tell us all about writing and publishing?” But while the author relates her personal experience and provides valuable insights, she’s certainly not adopting a professorial stance and also relies on the wisdom of over 150 contributors who are quoted throughout, from authors and agents to editors and more, all of them “sharing intimate anecdotes about even the most taboo topics in the industry”, as the book touts.

Unless her book takes an unexpected turn in the second half, I’ll wager this one can stand proudly beside Lawrence Block’s Writing The Novel: From Plot To Print To Pixel,  the standard for a truly practical writer’s book, IMHO. Pro, newbie, or somewhere in between like most, still an ‘armchair novelist’ or midway through a writer’s MFA program, you ought to get this book. Just sayin’…

https://chireviewofbooks.com/2020/01/20/finding-clarity-and-a-sense-of-humor-in-the-publishing-process/

 

A Broken Heart To Go…

Martinis And A Broken Heart To Go

Mid-January: Snowflakes started falling mid-afternoon Friday, and by Saturday morning (not especially cold) a thick coating of snow turned streets and sidewalks treacherous. But by mid-afternoon today, the temps plummeted into the 20’s, headed for the frigid teens by tonight, with gusty winds whipping people right down icy driveways.

The writing lounge sounds like the place to be tonight, maybe tomorrow as well. Maybe there’s no reason to poke my nose out the door till I head back to work on Monday. The keyboard beckons, and there’s work to be done. There’s a freshly refilled thermal carafe of coffee on my desk, the ashtray’s in reach, and though they’re only CD’s (vinyl would be better) the Jazz Noir compilation and 1997’s Martinis And A Broken Heart To Go (complete with Richie Fahey case art) ought to do the trick to keep things warm while I pound the keys.

There are worse ways to spend a weekend…

Jazz Noir

Dangerous Dames

Pulpster copy

The Pulpster No. 26, a 2017 PulpFest publication: Not that I attended PulpFest, only being greedily acquisitive, not really a collector and generally steering clear of cons and swap meets.

But I wanted this particular “Dangerous Dames” issue with Ron Goulart’s survey of early crime and mystery pulps’ female detectives, including Hulbert Footner’s Madame Storey, Cleve F. Adams’ Violet McCade, D.B. McCandless’ Sarah Watson, and of course, Theodore Tinsley’s Carrie Cashin, the most successful of the bunch with nearly 40 stories appearing in Crime Busters and Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine between 1937 and 1942. Prolific author and pop culture historian Ron Goulart was the perfect choice for this piece with his mile-long fiction resume and a dozen or more non-fiction books including The Hard-Boiled Dicks: An Anthology And Study Of Pulp Detective Fiction (1967) and The Dime Detectives (I have a 1980’s edition of that book). You may know him from a roster of pen names including Howard Lee, Jillian Kearny and several others. Goulart’s piece was followed by Bill Pronzini’s “Women In The Detective Pulps”, a look at women crime fiction writers working in the pulp magazines’ boyz club, including Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Carolyn Wells, Dorothy Dunn and others.

Black Mask July 1949

The Pulpster wasn’t a newsstand magazine, to my knowledge, and at only 40 pages, a bit pricey, but well worth it for those two articles. Well, those, and the nifty Norman Saunders cover illustration, which was from the July 1949 issue of Black Mask, and still available as a poster at the artist’s website (normansaunders.com). BTW, that bloody hand print really is the artist’s own hand covered with red paint, according to Saunders’ son.

Walker’s Back.

When Old Midnight COmes ALong

Loren D. Estleman’s latest Amos Walker mystery series novel When Old Midnight Comes Along was released right before Christmas, but I didn’t get my hands on a copy till a week ago. While it’s possible I’ve missed one or two Amos Walker novels (possible, but unlikely), there are almost thirty of them, so I probably ought to do a careful check of the full list…just in case.

If you’re a hard-boiled detective fiction fan, an Amos Walker novel is like coming home to a beloved and familiar place. If you’re foolish enough to be taking a whack at writing hard-boiled or noir-ish crime fiction yourself, then a tour of Walker’s Detroit mean-streets are must-read tutorials. The writing feels effortless, though I’m sure it’s not, and Estleman consistently manages to rival Raymond Chandler when it comes to snappy banter and vivid descriptions. The Motor City private eye’s a bit older here, aging pretty naturally in each book, and his not-a-friend but not-a-nemesis Detroit PD detective John Alderdyce’s retired and working for a hi-tech security firm now (and not liking it one bit). Walker’s hired by a high-profile political fixer to locate the man’s wife. Or, verify that she’s deceased, seeing as she’s been missing for nearly seven years. With only months to go before she can legally be declared dead, and a million dollar life insurance policy on the table, our beloved P.I. naturally wonders why the bigwig doesn’t just wait it out, particularly since he originally was the prime suspect in the wife’s disappearance. But as you’d assume, the plot thickens. Quickly.

I devour mystery and crime fiction, but admittedly, not because I love whodunits. If I did, I’d read more cozies (which I rarely do), which are really the realm of the great locked room mysteries, authentic trails of clues and genuine puzzlers. But it’s never been about the ‘mystery’ for me, and instead, all about enjoying dark and dangerous rides through noir-ish settings riddled with crime and corruption, populated by good guys with an edge and bad girls with an agenda, the final resolution of ‘the crime’ relatively unimportant to me. Well, there’s no one better to guide you through those dark netherworlds than Loren D. Estleman and his grim, gritty, wisened and wise-cracking Amos Walker. But in this case, I found myself uncharacteristically ensnared by the novel’s mystery, naively thinking I’d figured out everything about halfway through, only to discover I had it all wrong (and I mean completely and totally wrong).

It’ll be a wait for the next Amos Walker mystery. But in the mean time I can cross my fingers that Estleman hasn’t given up on his Valentino, Film Detective series. A little more light-hearted, perhaps, and only five novels so far, but I really, really wish there’d be another. Please.

Playing The Stock Market.

the rap sheetBrowsing the Chicago papers and the New York Times online before the workday commences is a daily routine for me. Call me a news junkie. Similarly, I rely on certain blogs and sites for my daily doses of noir culture and writerly biz, Literary Hub, Crime Reads and J. Kingston Pierce’s The Rap Sheet (link below) key among them. Great for writers? You bet, but just as essential for readers and genre enthusiasts. In The Rap Sheet’s case, there’s often much more than genre goings-on to peruse. Case in point:

The 1.11.20 edition included a link to an August 2019 article from the AIGA Eye On Design site, “Why Do So Many Book Covers Look The Same? Blame Getty Images” by Cory Matteson. The AIGA? That’s the American Institute of Graphic Arts (and do I really need my day job’s turf creeping into my coffee break ‘me-time’?).

AIGA Screen Cap

I’ll wager that, like me, many visitors and followers here at The Stiletto Gumshoe site frequent some of the truly excellent vintage pulp magazine, postwar paperback and classic illustration sites like The Rap Sheet’s affiliate Killer Covers Of The Week, Pulpcovers, Not Pulpcovers, Seattle Mystery Books and others. Betcha you’ve been amused by their periodic examples of classic pulp magazine or vintage paperback cover art re-purposed on another title…as-is, altered, or sometimes quite possibly stolen by a less-than-ethical offshore operation. More in the ‘now’, I get a little dizzy when I cruise the Seattle behemoth’s Kindle books and see how much classic Robert Maguire, McGinnis, Rader, Barton and other artists’ work appears on quickie crime novelettes and sexy-shorties. Let’s just guess those illustrations aren’t in the public domain and some self-styled self-publishers don’t own the originals.

But the Matteson’s AIGA Eye On Design article tackles a different situation altogether: Cover art’s stock photography redundantly appearing on different titles. Matteson notes, “The book cover design world, it turns out, has something of an all-star squad of stock and archival images that show up on book covers time and time again”. The AIGA article isn’t merely pointing out isolated examples of a stock image appearing on two books. The article depicts images used more or less concurrently on a dozen different titles, sometimes in different markets, sometimes not. And it occurs more frequently than you might expect. Just one example from Matteson’s article: Matthias Clamer’s 2004 photo “Naked Woman Sleeping On Gravel” is shown here on just two titles, but it’s actually been used on fifteen books.

Book Cover Duo

Designers have a love-hate relationship with stock imagery: Grateful it’s available when budgets won’t allow for original photography or illustration, but well aware it’s being used by counterparts elsewhere. You need a photo of an apple? A coffee cup, hammer or clock? Are you really going to hire a photographer to shoot one, or just expeditiously snatch one from a stock photo site for a fraction of the cost, downloaded and ready to use now? Most creative resources maintain subscriptions or ‘bank’ credits with their preferred stock photo agencies for easy access, the images ranging from routine objects and insets, to stunning works of photographic art, to the digital building blocks of proprietary photo-composed imagery. Getty is kind of the Cadillac of the bunch, with iStock, CanStock, Shutterstock and others bringing up the rear with more affordable options. But with stock photos, you definitely get what you pay for, both in selection and quality.

Indie book launcher dot com

This topic’s been addressed before – both humorously and seriously – at The Rap Sheet, Goodreads, various pulp illustration sites, indie/self-publishing sites (examples above from the Indie Book Launcher site, for instance). Surely you’ve spotted a memorable book cover’s photo on another title, or in an ad or magazine. I do, and often. Big city art agencies and studios repping the likes of Mike Ludlow, Clement Micarelli, Edwin Georgi and their ilk are long gone. In the mystery/crime fiction marketplace, Hard Case Crime has been the only reliable line showcasing contemporary figurative illustration. They’ve done so right from the start and continue to do so in their new ownership…God bless ‘em. But it’s a photographic world (a digital image world to be precise) and in publishing, it’s understandably a stock image world, realistically dictated by budgets and timetables. Still…that doesn’t excuse the redundant use of the same image. Blame Getty? Not me. I’ll blame inattentive (or disinterested) art directors, graphic designers and inexpert self-publishers.

Rap Sheet Blog Archives

I won’t include a direct link here to Cory Matteson’s AIGA article “Why Do So Many Book Covers Look The Same? Blame Getty Images”. Go to The Rap Sheet yourself to follow the link. It also appears on the Killer Covers of The Week site, and those links are below. Go to either to check out Matteson’s article for an interesting read, but I bet you spend some time at one of Pierce’s sites browsing other stuff. In fact, I defy you not to.

http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/

http://killercoversoftheweek.blogspot.com/

The Decade’s Best (Make That Bestsellers)

by brittany markert

Normally I bypass many of the end-of-year ‘best-of’ lists populating so many blogs, newsletters and sites that I follow. This year, pad the count with extra end-of-decade best-of lists. Skimming a couple right before the holidays was enough for me, though they’re still popping up on my screen. Much as I enjoy reading reviewers’ opinions, I know that my faves won’t be yours and vice-versa, and ‘best’ will be one thing to one reader and something else to another.

That said, one list did catch my eye, albeit not a ‘best of’ list at all: John Warner’s 1.5.20 Chicago Tribune Biblioracle column, “Top Bestsellers Rail Against Patriarchy” listed the NPD Bookscan top-selling books of the decade, and he opened by asking the reader to guess the top-selling book of the 2010’s. Warning: You may not like the answer.

Yes, it was E. L. James Fifty Shades of Grey. But it gets worse. The number two and three titles? Also E.L. James, with her sequels Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

Now this was a bestselling list, not a ‘best-of’ list. If you’re disappointed that cumbersome mommy porn sold so well when your own lovingly crafted projects may have languished in relative obscurity (consider that just the returns for the Fifty Shades books surely dwarfed most writers’ total sales), there’s still news in the decade’s top-sellers. In order, the top selling books in the 2010’s according to NPD Bookscan were:

Fifty Shades Of Grey, E.L. James

Fifty Shades Darker, E.L. James

Fifty Shades Freed, E.L. James

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

The Help, Kathryn Stockett

The Girl on The Train, Paula Hawkins

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

Divergent, Veronica Roth

brittany-markert

Whether you read or liked all or even some of the list, you can see that it’s overwhelmingly dominated by women writers and with books featuring female protagonists. Noteworthy? You bet. Someday, tallying women writers vs. men writers simply won’t be a topic, any more than women directors, musicians, artists, etc. Someday. But for now, there are still decades (centuries?) of male dominated pop culture and fine arts to rebalance. After all, the publishing marketplace (publishers, editors, literary agents, etc.) is comprised mostly of women. And, most books are bought by women. So, there should be no big revelation in the decade’s top seller list.

No one’s saying the books’ protagonists are all heroic women or even positive role models. It would be a stretch to claim that each title on the decade’s bestseller list necessarily ‘railed against patriarchy’, as John Warner put it in the Tribune. That’s the makings of another conversation. Still, the stats are illuminating, and it’ll be interesting to revisit this ten years out when we see what the 2020’s top ten will be, who’ll have written them, and what changes may or may not have occurred in readers’ tastes and the industry’s output.

Photos: Brittany Markert

 

Taking A Moment…

Hammett 1

Just before shutting off the writer’s cave lights before heading to bed last night, I paused for a moment to browse one particular shelf on one of too many bookcases. Spines out, there were my Dashiell Hammett books lined up, a fancy hardcover Chatham River Press novel omnibus edition, a couple frail vintage paperbacks, and various Vintage Crime/Black Lizard trade paperbacks, the handsomest of the bunch in my opinion.

When it comes to the granddaddies of hard-boiled private-eye/crime fiction, I’ll concede here that I’m more Chandler than Hammett, more Marlowe than Spade. Still, yesterday was the anniversary of the day Dashiell Hammett passed away from lung cancer back in 1961. A moment of reverence seemed in order.

Hammett 3

Pinkerton Agency operative, US Army vet in both WWI and WWII, staunch anti-fascist, Hammett was blacklisted and even served time in federal prison for contempt during the 1950’s communist witch hunts. He published over 100 short stories, story collections and novels, created The Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and of course, Sam Spade, and wrote for the silver screen as well, such as the screenplay for his long-time partner Lillian Hellman’s play Watch On The Rhine (a particular favorite film of mine). And yet, he wrote his final novel at age 40, more or less turning his back on fiction decades before his death, his novel and short fiction output penned primarily in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. It was a puzzlingly brief career, but one that obviously influenced the mystery/crime fiction genre far beyond its duration.

Hammett 2

My to-be-read pile is disturbingly tall at the moment. No, I don’t plan to squeeze in a re-read of The Maltese Falcon right now. But then I am reading Loren D. Estleman’s new When Old Midnight Comes Along, an Amos Walker mystery, and can feel the echoes of Dashiell Hammett’s work from eighty and ninety years ago in even that beloved private eye’s story.

Worth The Wait: Mystery Scene.

Mystery Scene 162

The Mystery Scene 2019 Holiday Issue (No. 162) appeared in my mailbox right before Christmas, but I set it aside for a leisurely read when I’d be out of town on a short holiday-over-the-holidays.

Okay, I’m fibbing. I cracked it open right away. But that was only for a quick skim to browse the 2019 Gift Guide For Mystery Lovers while there was still time before the 24th.  There was no point in snooping the books, as it turned out, because I already had or was about to get most of those included in this year’s guide: Joyce Carol Oates Cutting Edge, Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Reel Murders, Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal: Bad Weekend. The novelties and more gifty items were cute enough but not targeted for my Christmas stocking or well-intended gift giving.

Publishers Kate Stine and Brian Skupin officially announced the magazine’s switch to a quarterly starting this year. It’ll be tough to wait longer between issues, but the promise of an increased page count while keeping the subscription price untouched was welcome news.

Mystery Scene Lesbian Mysteries

Along with the must-read reviews, John Vaerli’s interview with former librarian, publishing PR exec and editor Domenica de Rosa, better known by her Elly Griffiths pen name and her Magic Men mystery series, and Nancy Bilyeau’s article on Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) were particular treats, as was Catherine Maiorisi’s look at contemporary lesbian mysteries, which flagged a couple writers who weren’t on my radar (but are now). As always, both the reviews and the ads launched a list of books to watch for, including Damien Angelica Walters’ The Dead Girls Club, Loren D. Estleman’s When Old Midnight Comes Along – An Amos Walker Novel, Timothy J. Lockhart’s Smith and Laird Blackwell’s Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine And The Art Of The Detective Story, to name just a few.

So, it’ll be a longer wait now for the next issue. Guess I’ll just have to savor it that much more once it arrives.

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