Not Sucking Up, I Swear.

4 writers

No, this isn’t a literary agent suck-up…

An old Huffington Post article referred to writer Anais Nin (seen above, top right) as ‘the original blogger’. Not really of course, there being no internet for her, but her release of portions of her diaries and journals was akin to blogging, or so the article explained. Makes you wonder what writers from the recent past would think of social media and writer’s blogs.  I follow my share, though often unfollowing quick enough if I conclude that the blogs are only self-promotion sites cluttering my inbox with redundant “Buy My Book!” posts. Publishing professionals’ blogs are much more rare, many literary agents and acquisition editors understandably too busy with their jobs to feel like posting about the biz in their down time.

But when I come across a good one, I really pay attention.

I’d already queried Janet Reid at New Leaf Literary & Media (though New Leaf queries are directed to a generic inbox) and promptly received my polite form rejection about a week later, signed by Ms. Reid (but could’ve been from her assistant, an intern, or who knows). As any actively querying writer realizes, a rejection isn’t necessarily an agent or editor saying that “You suck” or “Your work sucks, too”, (though, of course, it could be) and can just as easily be no more than “Not right for me”, “I already have something just like it”, or the agent’s overloaded and is more or less shooting out form rejections to damn near everything that comes in. Whatever Ms. Reid’s rejection meant, a tip of the hat to her for adhering to traditional biz communication protocol and bothering to send the form rejection. Not unlike employers with resumes/job applications, the number of agencies that forego any reply at all is disappointing.

Still – Query sent. Reply received. Case closed. So…no suck up here. Clear?

Janet Reid Blog

Because this is actually a shout-out to writers and writer wannabes: Make a point of following Janet Reid’s excellent blog (link below). Reid used to run the Query Shark blog, where brave, thick-skinned writers submitted real queries for her critique. Which could be pretty merciless. With a shared sense of humor, but still…pretty merciless. Which is good. However, Query Shark appears to have been dormant since March, so perhaps it’s on hiatus, or Reid’s devoting her time to her regular blog instead, or Query Shark simply was folded into that blog, or moved, or…

No matter, Reid’s blog is a treasure trove of pull-no-punches advice and practical guidance on countless topics of interest to writers, whether beginners, pro’s or anything in between. And, it’s often quite funny. Reid has a wicked, whimsical sense of humor and a real way with words, enough to turn many un-fun topics into chuckle-worthy chats. The blog’s been going since 2004, and the archives have hundreds (thousands?) of posts, so be warned: Stop by for a peek and you could get lost for days. I follow her daily posts via BlogLovin’ and am diligently working backwards through the archives a few-per-day. It’s so informative (and entertaining), I almost feel like I should be paying Reid tuition.  You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

So, an agent’s rejection? Oh well, that’s to be expected. But I’m glad to have discovered Janet Reid’s blog, and encourage you to take a look too.

Jetreidliterary.blogspot.com

(Author photos: Ernest Hemingway, Anais Nin, Carson McCullers, Phillip Roth)

Long Ago And Far Away…Not.

Crime ReadsI’m deep in James Ellroy’s 2019 This Storm, but expect to be wallowing in the underbelly of 1942 Los Angeles’ dark side for days to come, the meaty novel just shy of 600 pages. Loving (worshipping?) Ellroy as I do, I wouldn’t dream of skimming a single passage, preferring to relish every syncopated jazz-rhythmic sentence, almost wishing I could read it all out loud.

The novel, the second book in Ellroy’s epic second ‘L.A. Quartet’, opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues into the Spring of 1942, right in the middle of the periods we often associate most closely with classic mystery/crime fiction and film: The Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and Golden Age Hollywood, Word War II, the tumultuous postwar years and the Red Scare and Cold War era of the 1950’s. These are the decades of the sleazy crime pulps, the rise of hard-boiled detective paperback original series, classic crime melodramas and film noir, banned crime comics and even the earliest TV detective series. The visuals – the clothes, the cars, the city streets, the diners, bars and buildings – all trigger associations with a classic crime and mystery milieu that’s firmly ingrained in pop culture.

In “The Art Of Setting Your Crime Novel In A Not-So-Distant Past”, a 7.24.19 Crime Reads essay (link below), New York writer (and NYT bestselling author, to be precise) Wendy Corsi Staub talks about growing up in the 1960’s, smitten with bygone eras which seemed so much more intriguing than her everyday world of bell bottoms and The Brady Bunch, unaware that all too soon that ticky-tack Melmac dinnerware and avocado applianced world would itself become ‘history’. Maybe not fog-shrouded Victorian London, Colonial Boston or Medieval Europe, but history nonetheless.

While we look back nostalgically through rose-colored glasses to the 1930’s – 1950’s for so much classic crime/mystery, the real people who lived in that era similarly looked back 60 – 80 years earlier, though in their case it led them to the Wild West, which may account in part for the popularity of Westerns in film, pulps, comics and television shows from the 1930’s till they abruptly vanished altogether in the late 1960’s.

Wendy Corsi Staub points out that the decades of our own youth – Boomer, Gen-X or Millennial as the case may be – are already (or soon will be) history every bit as much as Philip Marlowe roaming 1930’s/40’s Los Angeles or Mike Hammer pounding perps in 1950’s Manhattan. But writing about (and reading about) the recent past can be challenging. Writers themselves may be surprised to discover how much they don’t know (or don’t remember) about periods that aren’t so far gone. Staub checks in with several novelists including Alyson Gaylin and Laura Lippman who’ve recently released books set in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was particularly pleased to see a personal favorite of mine included, Anthony award finalist James W. Ziskin, whose Ellie Stone mystery series (now at six novels) is set in the very early sixties. It would just be sheer hubris to suggest that ‘great minds think alike’, but I felt reassured when these writers explained how they may have relied on everyday magazines more than Google – ads, recipes and all – to build their arsenal of period-correct details and get a feel for the times. Spending a bundle at Ebay equipped me with loads of period mags to browse, highlight and scan, and were much more fertile sources than even the novels or TV series reruns from the same years. James Ziskin echoed what drew me to the specific years in which I’ve set my own current projects. The Stiletto Gumshoe opens in the Spring of 1959. The in-progress sequel takes place only a few months later. If I’m lucky enough to sell this darn thing and turn it into a series (which I realize is a lot like spending your Lottery jackpot before buying a ticket) I’d forecast the timeline up to the mid-sixties, before so many sudden and sweeping political, cultural and social changes erupted. Why? Precisely as Ziskin states, those years are “on the cusp” of change. But it hasn’t quite happened yet. For me working in 1959, one foot’s firmly rooted in the older mid-twentieth century world, while the other very hesitantly tip-toes a bit towards what’s still to come.

You don’t have to sell me on the appeal of the ‘classic crime and noir’ decades: The enormous fat-fendered cars, fellows in their double-breasted suits with the wide-brimmed fedoras pulled low over the eyes. The women sporting silly truffles atop their freshly set do’s, shapely in tailor pencil skirts, their stocking seams straight. Boat-sized Yellow taxis and elevator operators, newsstands and nightclubs with tiny tables, each with a little shaded lamp in the center. And everyone smokes. Everyone. It all seems so much more glamorous, more dangerous and more intriguing than the ‘now’. Or even the recent ‘now’, whether that’s mods in mini-skirts or disco divas in Danskin wrap dresses, shopping mall cliques ogling MTV or hackers with their noses glued to smartphone screens. The familiarity of our youth – the recent past – can make it seem bland. But it’s not. And the details of those years – the essential bits and pieces and subtle cues writers need to sprinkle throughout their material – may even take some research to get right. Even if it’s very recent.  And the fact is, there’s richness in the recent past that can equal all the imagined romance of earlier eras.

Yes, even the fashion disaster that was the 1970’s.

Mystery/crime fiction writer or reader, check out Wendy Corsi Staub’s essay at Crime Reads:

https://crimereads.com/the-art-of-setting-your-crime-novel-in-a-not-so-distant-past/

 

Night Watch

Night Watch

It’s not that I want muddle through dreary books with bored disinterest. But I do want to get some sleep, and two ‘page turners’ back-to-back does not get a person a reliable eight hours a night in the sack during a work week.

When I closed the cover Edward Conlon’s excellent The Policewomen’s Bureau(see recent post) I picked up David C. Taylor’s Night Watch, his third Michael Cassidy thriller. I knew what I was in for, having enjoyed his previous two books.

Night Work

Intriguing, but the three books are not actually in chronological order. This new novel, Night Watch, is technically the second story in the series, the first book, Night Lifetaking place in 1954, this novel in 1956, and the second book, Night Work, actually the third tale and occurring in 1959. No matter, since each stand alone quite well, and a reader could easily pick up any one of them and do just fine. Taylor calls them thrillers, but they’re as much classic hard-boiled New York detective stories, spending more time in the squad rooms, squalid tenements, crowded nightclubs and night shrouded streets of New York as anywhere else, even when the stories may briefly whisk the reader away to Washington or Cuba. Always beginning with ‘small’ local crimes, the investigations lead unexpectedly to bigger prey and much bigger threats, including Soviet spies, Cuban revolutionaries, Batista regime hit men, former Nazi scientists and the FBI, CIA and even the State Department. Taylor handles this skillfully through his well-conceived NYPD detective, Michael Cassidy – connected, honorable, cynical, loyal, willing to bend the law in pursuit of justice, and over the course of three novels, incredibly unlucky in love.

In Night Watch, the nearly overlooked murder of hansom cab driver leads to the discovery that he was his family’s sole survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. This eventually reveals the surprising number of former Nazi and SS personnel living in the U.S. while working on Cold War hush-hush experimental projects. The investigation puts Detective Michael Cassidy, his family and friends and his New York Post reporter girlfriend, Rhonda Raskin, in jeopardy. I’ll say no more. But if you think you’d like a novel that skillfully juggles traditional police procedural and hard-boiled detective tropes in a classic 1950’s New York setting with some high-stakes international intrigue, go look for any one of David C. Taylor’s Michael Cassidy novels. I’m certain you’ll be pleased.

Night Life

 

Another Writer’s Digest In The Mailbox

Writer's Digest Sept 2019

“Primarily I’m writing to entertain, right?” Karin Slaughter, bestselling author of a book a year since 2001, says just that in her interview with Ericka McIntyre in the September 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. “If I could change the world, with what I’m writing, then I would write very different books.” Still, she explains that there are things in her books that go beyond storytelling, issues she hopes readers will confront, things she’d like men to know about women, experiences she’d like to validate for female readers. But this is only a brief part of the three-page interview (with more online at writersdigest.com). Slaughter’s remarks on writing discipline and productivity are particularly worth noting, considering that her book-a-year output has added up to over 120 million copies sold in 37 languages.

I was pleased to see the new issue of Writers Digest magazine in my mailbox, keeping my fingers crossed that the financial woes which recently took down its parent company, F+W Media, are being resolved in a way that enables the magazine to continue publication. I’d really miss WD if it vanished. This September 2019 issue is “The Big Idea Issue”, with interesting articles on “Mastering High Concept”, how to effectively deploy subplots and more. My favorite this issue was Simon Van Body’s “Becoming A Multigenre Master”, with some guidance on how to work concurrently on multiple projects in completely different genres. I have no burning desire to pen a western or a steampunk romance, but there are times when I’d consider starting something outside my usual areas of interest, perhaps even something measurably ‘steamier’ than I’m what currently doing, even if only for fun or self-publication. “The many voices that make you up but which cannot be reconciled into one single voice all the time can most definitely be channeled into different ways of telling stories,” Van Body assures writers, sounding so certain in his article that I might just be tempted to give it a try.

One Night Stands

Manhunt Dec 1958

Mired in relentlessly humid nineties for days, I headed out for what was supposed to be a quick Saturday AM trip to run errands, anxious to be home before morning warmed into another tropical afternoon. ‘Quick’ turned into three hours, with impatient weekend warriors fighting over parking spaces at each stop, my last a nightmarish trek through a crowded big box store. But a regional chain used bookstore beckoned from across the parking lot afterwards, like a well earned treat for getting those chores done. The last thing I need is more books piling up on my end table right now, but I walked out with a few treasures anyway.

One Night Stands

I know I had Lawrence Block’s One Night Stands And Lost Weekends, a 2008 Harper trade pb collecting some of the Grand Master’s short crime fiction and suspense novelettes from 1958 to 1966, with dates and credits for each in the back. Perhaps my original copy was reluctantly sold to a used bookstore to make room (bookshelf space is generous but not limitless here). Or I lent it to someone and forgot to get it back. But this nifty book is back on shelf now where it belongs, in a surprisingly clean, crisp copy I’m nearly done with already.

When I brought it and another book to the register, the cashier was nice enough to ask if I’d seen the Lawrence Block hardcover short fiction omnibus there as well. I hadn’t, so he dragged me over (it was out of order on shelf, as it turned out), so I also left with a like-new 2002 first edition hardcover of Enough Rope (previously published in the UK as The Collected Mysteries Stories), a nearly 900-page door-stopper of a collection with more than 80 Lawrence Block short stories. If there’s a duplicate between the two books (I spotted one right away), who cares? My only complaint: Eighty-plus gems, and the publisher couldn’t spring for an appendix or permissions section at the back to provide original publication dates at least, if not publication titles too? Well, no whining when you snag a treasure for eight bucks.

enough rope

Enough Rope is on my nightstand, that book spanning more years of Block’s career and including a bounty of detective/crime fiction short stories, with nine Matthew Scudder pieces, so it’d be worth buying for those alone. One Night Stands And Lost Weekends is in my car so I can knock off a shortie before and after work or chilling in a parking lot before a meeting during the week.

Three ‘lost’ Ed London – Private Eye novelettes conclude that book. I read the last one, “Twin Call Girls” and still need to finish “The Naked And The Deadly” and “Stag Party Girl”. Block’s three page 2001 introduction to his long-lost Ed London stories is as interesting as the stories themselves…no kidding. So, with only a few stories left to read, I’ve spent some quality time with a lot of delightfully unsavory people, visited dreary small towns, knocked back shots and draft shorties in their dismal cocktail lounges, then bedded down in their dingy hotel rooms, achingly alone or rolling ‘round a worn out mattress with any of a long string of curvy blondes squeezed into snug sweaters and tight skirts, on the make or ripe for a glib stranger’s line. In “Man With A Passion” from Sure-Fire in 1958, freelance photographer (and scheming blackmailer) Jacob Falch breezes into a jerkwater town with ten grand in his suitcase, recently paid by the mayor of the last jerkwater town to conceal some skillfully composited photographs of the mayor’s wife in very compromising positions. “The room was drab and colorless,” we’re told. “There was a bed, a straight-backed chair that looked as though it would buckle if he sat on it, and a dull brown dresser studded with cigarette burns. In short, Falch reflected, it was a crummy room in a cheap hotel. But it would do for the time being.” Cheery, huh?

You have to keep the time, the publications and their readership in mind, just like you do when reading pre-WWII crime and spicy pulp stories. The women are reduced to hair color, the shape of their figures and the cut of their clothes, all of them cunning femmes fatales when they’re not nameless trophies to be ‘had’ (with no one quibbling about the ethics of how that comes about). Assault masquerades as seduction in these overwhelmingly grim stories of adulterers, hit men and swindlers. Culled mostly from 1958 – 1961 issues of Manhunt, Guilty and Trapped magazines, some feel hastily written (and they often were, per the author’s own introduction), are glaringly dated, simple and sometimes shallow…

And utterly sublime.

See, the thing about Lawrence Block short stories is that, for me, they function on three levels.

First, and naturally enough, they’re just plain entertaining, downright fun to read (in a peculiarly grim sort of way) and rarely disappoint.

Second (and this applies particularly to the oldies), they carry me back to a bygone era I can only imagine (and probably romanticize more than I should) when talented, hard-working (and lucky) writers willing to pound the keys diligently enough could, theoretically, actually make a living at this writing game. Just like his writing how-to books, Block’s usually good for some conversational background about those early days when he started out, which both books’ introductions covered and which I love to read. Styles and tastes have evolved considerably since the 50’s-60’s waning pulp days and the PBO era. Some of the outlandish premises and gotcha endings might no longer fly with editors or readers. And just like most 1930’s – 1960’s crime pulps, spicy’s and ‘adventure’ magazines, the stories are brimming with squirm-worthy situations and borderline offensive dialog. And just like those mid-twentieth century pulps, I simply can’t help but enjoy the storytelling and straightforward writing.

Third and finally, I often feel like I’m cheating a bit when I read Lawrence Block, and suppose many writers would. Why? Because in addition to reading simply for enjoyment, I’m also getting a value-added (if unintended) tutorial on how to do it and how to do it right. Plot, action, setting and characters are all managed with such an economy of words. I plow through one story and immediately want to revisit the last pages I wrote in my own projects to prune, edit and tweak. Knowing that many of these stories were knocked out in a single evening is maddening to someone less skilled.

You’ll excuse me now. I’m setting the way-back machine to 1959, heading to a hot-sheet hotel on Chicago’s SW side so I can add some cigarette burns to one of their dreary room’s dresser tops. The ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ herself probably left one of her Viceroys smoldering there once things heated up on the rickety old bed. Like I said, when I read some vintage Lawrence Block, I want to revisit my own stuff immediately. Cigarette burns. Yeah, that’s what I need…

Magazine images include: Guilty March 1958, July 1958 and September 1958; Manhunt December 1956; Trapped June 1958, October 1958 and April 1959.

The Howdunit Series

scene of the crime

I suppose Writer’s Digest Books “Howdunit Series” ought to be mandatory reading for every mystery/crime fiction writer, but the fact is, they’re quite entertaining for crime fiction fans as well. And very informative, if you like to be well-versed in grisly trivia.

I only have two: Keith D. Wilson’s Cause Of Death – A Writer’s Guide To Death, Murder & Forensic Medicine, and just added Anne Wingate’s Scene Of The Crime – A Writer’s Guide To Crime-Scene Investigations this past weekend. That the books are nearing 30 years-old doesn’t bother me, since my current projects are set in 1959. Things probably weren’t even up to 1990’s standards at that time anyway.

Private Eyes

What’s your pleasure? Poisons? Firearms? I really need to locate a clean copy of Private Eyes – A Writer’s Guide To Private Investigators by Hal Blythe, Charlie Sweet and John Landreth, though I’m sure things were quite different for P.I.’s sixty years ago when my ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ hung up her shingle. The fact that I don’t see these books on shelf in used bookstores very often tells me that once bought, they’re kept. Sure, everything you ever wanted to know is online. But it’s nice to have details and info handy from reliable sources, not just a Wikipedia entry.

3 Books4 books

Writer’s Digest: Villains & Violence

 

Happy to see the July/August 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine in my mailbox this past weekend. I’ve heard no further news about WD parent company F+W Media’s financial woes or the bankruptcy announced back in March, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed that management will find a way to reorganize and pay all creditors while keeping this vital writers’ resource going. I think 2020 is Writer’s Digest’s 100th anniversary, so it’d be tragic for the publication to vanish now.

July/August is billed as “The Villains Issue” and like many theme issues, it’s stretching things a bit to make some articles’ fit the theme. But that’s okay, since I found nearly everything in this issue interesting or useful. But my favorite was “Packing The Punch” by Carla Hoch, author of Fight Write: How To Write Believable Fight Scenes from WD Books.

Writers Digest July-August 2019

Many writers insist that sex scenes are the most difficult to write, and they may be right. Finding a comfort zone between steamy and merely icky can be challenging, particularly since every writer knows that readers will identify the roles and activities with the writer and the writer’s own ‘proclivities’. Maybe you don’t care, but you might if you’re a grammar school teacher or town council member writing lurid kink-filled scenes in your downtime.

But I’ll suggest that fight scenes – like any action scenes – can be every bit as difficult to craft as the squirmiest sex scene, if not more so. Both types of scenes have multiple participants (well, usually), there’s a lot of movement and action that must be choreographed, and then accurately attributed so the reader won’t be hopelessly lost. Who’s punching who? Who pulled the trigger, and who got hit? A sense of place has to be defined, pain has to be described and so much more, but unlike a sex scene, this has to be accomplished with an economy of words. Perhaps it’s fine to indulge in flowery prose and a languid pace for lovemaking. Fight scenes demand a finger-snapping staccato rhythm, moving fast but with pinpoint accuracy to keep the reader speeding through the words while still comprehending precisely what’s what. That’s a mighty tall order for pro’s and budding talents alike. As Carla Hoch says, “Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a good long sentence, pulsating with verbs and sutured with commas to grab your reader by the collar and drag them to the scene, because you will give them no other choice and there’s no leaving until you throw in the towel.”

By Bert Hardy

Some suggest that a writer should try to hear an imaginary musical soundtrack behind their words in order to guide their pace. (You know, that might even work well with reading?) Sex scenes? If all soft-focused slow-mo stuff, the soundtrack might be a romantic Debussy piece or a soft pop ballad. More rambunctious romps might demand club tunes with a relentless pulsing beat you can feel right in your belly (or lower). Depends on what kind of frolicking the fun-lovers are up to. What kind of soundtrack sets the pace for a fight scene? Well, it’s unlikely to be a waltz. A thrash metal song, maybe. Some bust-loose jazz jam or an AOR guitar-god head banger. Hell, it could be a pompous Wagnerian thing if the fight involved axes and chain mail. In my work, it’s most likely bare knuckles on skin, slugs flying from a .45 automatic, or when the Stiletto Gumshoe’s caught unarmed, there’s still a spike heel rammed down doubly hard on a thug’s wingtips.

Thanks to Writer’s Digest magazine once again for helpful how-to’s like Carla Hoch’s terrific piece. I’ll be watching my mailbox with my fingers crossed that the issues keep coming.

(No credits available for the found art illustrations above, but the photos are by Bert Hardy above and Richard Avedon below.) 

By Richard Avedon

 

Listening To: Love For Sale (1959)

Love For Sale LP

Technically, not listening to, but still waiting for: Pioneer jazz pianist Cecil Taylor (1929 – 2018) and his fifth album, Love For Sale from 1959, the year I’m fixated on with my own writing work. Vinyl’s been ordered, and back-ordered since forever. Suitable background music’s a must when I’m pounding the keyboard. The Mac keyboard that is. I’m not tinkling any ivories here. Love that album cover, though. The photo could be a scene right out of ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’.

 

Mystery Scene

Mystery Scene 1

Found the new Mystery Scene magazine issue 159 in my mailbox after work, and am only disappointed that I already devoured the darn thing and now have to wait for another issue. Mystery fans and writers will find the usual healthy mix of topics and mystery/crime fiction sub-categories well-represented. I got a particular kick out of one entry in the monthly The Hook: Intriguing First Lines feature, which showcases a selection of particularly interesting, gripping or even amusing first sentences or paragraphs from various mystery novels. I pasted in author Lee Goldberg’s opening from his 2019 Killer Thriller above, and who among us hasn’t met or known someone just like the person being described? Just in case the image is missing on your screen, here it is as text:

“Ian Ludlow’s UCLA creative writing professor insisted that the key to being a successful novelist was writing from personal experience. That’s why the professor was the author of five unpublished novels about sexually frustrated novelists who toiled in obscurity while teaching talentless and ungrateful students how to write.” From Killer Thriller, by Lee Goldberg 2019

mystery scene

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