Armchair-ing.

Writers Digest August

Magazines are planned months ahead of time, so Writer’s Digest can be forgiven for putting out its July/August 2020 “Travel Writing Issue” when few are. Traveling, that is.

Who could have foreseen where we’d be right now? A reluctant traveler even in normal times, I’ll admit to skimming some of the feature articles this month. But the magazine still had a lot to offer, particularly the excellent WD Interview with author Robert Dugoni by Larry Brooks. And even while we’re still mostly sheltering in, ‘armchair travel’ is a perfectly suitable pastime (now more than ever, actually) so hopefully a lot of budding travel writers are studying this issue carefully.

Why Bother?

raica oliviera by fulvio maiani

As explained in prior posts, I’ve reluctantly pressed the pause button on my querying and writing outreach activity, hoping things will settle back into something like normal come September (summer being a notoriously bad time for pestering agents anyway, or so we often hear). The fact is, my last query went out way back in mid-March and it was a straggler at that.

So, I was surprised to receive a query response this week. Even more so since I’d sent that particular query five months ago. I’d already flagged it as a “NORMAN” (No Reply Means A No) long ago. I’m not sure what’s more dismissive: No reply at all, or one sent five months later.

I mean, seriously…at that point, why bother?

 

Photo: Raica Oliviera by Fulvio Maiani

These Women.

these women

If you’re overwhelmed by the daily deluge of plagues, protests and politics, I’m not sure that Ivy Pochoda’s These Women (Ecco/HarperCollins 2020) is the book I’d recommend right now. But you should read it. In fact, I can think of no better way to do so than to grab it right after finishing any one of the zillion ‘thrillers’ crowding bookstore shelves with their cast of creepy serial killers abducting/torturing/murdering women in puzzlingly twisted voyeuristic descriptions.

I never got to see where These Women will be shelved at retail, having ordered the book ahead of time for a pickup. I suspect some stores will place it in Fiction & Literature while others will stick it in Mystery/Crime Fiction, where I’m sure the book will squirm in agony, flanked by a whodunit and a police procedural. These Women certainly deals with crime. A serial killer, in fact, and on all too familiar turf: contemporary Los Angeles. But Pochoda’s novel (more or less) ignores the culprit, the crimes and the chase to focus on several women, including former prostitute Feelea who survived the serial killer’s attack back in 1999, and Dorian, the grieving mother of the killer’s last of thirteen victims. There’s Julianna, AKA Jujubee, a strip club worker and hobby photographer, and performance artist Marella along with her aspirational mother Anneke, and finally, L.A. detective Essie Perry who uncovers disturbing details about the decades old unsolved serial killer case, and suspects the murderer may be at work once again. The women’s lives all intersect, Dorian being the cook at a fish shack frequented by streetwalkers, Essie the cop who’s saddled with Dorian’s reports that’s she’s being stalked, and so on.

In lesser hands – or at least, a writer with simpler ambitions – this cast of characters would hover on the sidelines while the reader spends way too much time inside the twisted mind of a creepy killer, periodically witnessing gruesome murders and cheering along while the detective overcomes bureaucratic interference and routine male coworker misogyny to finally take down the killer. But Pochoda’s not interested in telling yet another serial killer tale. She’s writing a book about the women impacted by brutal tragedy and living in violent horror on a daily basis. The killer, the crimes, the hunt…they’re almost incidental.

Stepping out of formulaic genre fiction comfort zones into the literary fiction arena can be daunting. Here, art supersedes narrative, so if a reader accustomed to straightforward plotting and a familiar balance of character vs. storytelling suddenly feels the author is merrily flipping them off, it’s no surprise. Art can be self-indulgent, and writerly cardinal sins that would be ruthlessly purged by agents and editors in more formulaic and genre projects are not only allowed here but encouraged. Now I’m not saying Pochoda’s flipping off book buyers! I’m only noting that hip-hopping between different times and multiple character POV’s while probing sense-of-place minutiae takes some getting used to. But it’s well worth the effort, in the case of Ivy Pochoda’s These Women.

Websites & Typewriters.

WD May-June

The May-June 2020 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine was surely put together before the pandemic swept over us and the subsequent sheltering-in commenced. But this issue’s main feature, WD’s 22nd annual “101 Best Websites For Writers” by managing editor Cassandra Lipp proved well-timed for readers/writers stuck at home. I’ve already flagged a few that look interesting (just what I need…more sites and blogs to follow).

I’m pretty sure some of the site info is already obsolete (one at least is on hiatus or gone altogether as far as I know) but there are some intriguing sites in this year’s list, including some you may be well aware of but which were entirely new to me, like ‘Cliché Finder’ at www.westegg.com/cliché or TV Tropes at www.tvtropes.org. As time allows, I’ll be visiting a bunch, but cautious with the follows, a plan to prune an already too long list of blogs and sites funneling stuff into my inboxes one of the many sheltering-in to-do list chores I’ve yet to tackle.

But for readers who aren’t looking for more ways to squander time online, there’s Alexandra Claus’ 5-Minute Memoir: “Typewritten Wonder” about the old baby blue Smith-Corona typewriter in a tan case spotted at a local Goodwill store when she was only 11. Begging her mother to spring for the ten-dollar price tag got Claus’ nowhere at the time, unaware that of course Mom returned to the store later, bought the treasure and had it refurbished just in time to be the best Christmas present ever.

jak kaiser

Add something from WD’s 22nd batch of recommended writers’ websites to your favorites bar, or nod knowingly along with Alexandra Claus when she writes, “My typewriter made my childhood dreams of being a writer feel real. Its well-worn keys stoked the creativity in my soul.” Kinda makes me want to shove this laptop aside and hunt up a typewriter.

Well…just kind of.

Photo: Jak Kaiser

 

Queriers’ Quirks.

chloe jasmine by damien lovegrove

There are all kinds of writers, from snooty intellectual types to quirky artsy-smartsy sorts, and everything in between. But among writers, or at least, those sitting on completed projects ready for submission, just how many different types of queriers are there?

You might be the hopeful type with a phone always handy, certain the A-List literary agent’s call is coming any minute, just like model Chloe Jasmine in the Damien Lovegrove photo above. But then, look closer at that pic and take note of the automatic beside her typewriter. Jasmine may not take rejection very well.

Fantasy writer Morgan Hazelwood’s site (morganhazelwood.com) recently took a peek at the different ways writers query in her post “The 10 Types Of Queriers” (link below). “Self-published authors get to skip the query trenches,” she writes, “but, for the rest of us, we all take different approaches to querying agents. What type of querier are you?”

Morgan Hazelwood Dot Com

Hazelwood provides a pretty accurate but still whimsical list of ten typical approaches, and any writer actively engaged in the querying process will smile (or wince) once they recognize their own tactics. Sure, Hazelwood’s poking some lighthearted fun at fellow writers, but anyone being honest will concede there’s a little of each of her types in us.

There’s the “I-Know-A-Guy” type who earnestly attends genre cons and writer events in order to hook-up with industry professionals, determined to query only agents met in person. Or “The Perfectionist”, a wannabe submitter who’ll finally get that query written after the manuscript’s next revision…which has been going on for years. Or, “The Eager NaNoWriMite” who banged out a first novel during NaNoWriMo and is already querying that same first draft, cocksure that a huge book deal awaits. “Oooh, Squirrel!” may be the best querier moniker, that writer managing an initial batch of queries, but quickly distracted by some new project before following up with more.

Since Morgan Hazelwood’s last ‘type’ is labeled “The Morgan”, she’ll understand if we assume that’s where she fits on the list (and for what it’s worth, “The Morgan” isn’t a bad type to be).

I’m not sure I could spot myself among her ten types, or at least, not precisely, more likely sharing both good and bad habits of various queriers. And the fact is, right now, C.J. Thomas is no type of querier, having decided to put the entire process on hold till things get back to normal. Well…normal-ish. My last batch of three queries went out in mid-February with one straggler sent in mid-March, just days before the ‘sheltering-in’ commenced ‘round here. None of those received a reply. In fact, the only recent response received came the first of May in reply to a January 2020 query (not a form letter, but still a no).

Any naïve notions I may have had that agents stuck at home (particularly in beleaguered Manhattan) might have time to catch up on query responses was precisely that: Woefully naïve.

I couldn’t come up with cute titles like Morgan Hazelwood did, and could only label myself as A) Patient and B) Focused on who’s selling books, not merely open to looking at my type of material. Naturally, I refer to the usual online and print resources and directories, but my ‘Bible’ has been the mystery/crime fiction reviews in Publishers Weekly, which usually list the books’ agents. Yes, I like to know which agents are open to queries. But I also want to know which agents actually sell their clients’ projects and how often. PW comes in handy when you want to see who closed deals, even in so-called genre fiction. After all, that is what this query/submission process is all about.

Things will begin to get back to normal soon enough, even if only in cautious baby steps at first. Then I’ll be querying again, perhaps sometime this Summer. I’ll reassess how I fit into Morgan Hazelwood’s list of ten types of queriers once I restart. For now, if you’re a writer, take a peek at her site and this particular post to see how you fit in. It’s a fun read.

https://morganhazelwood.com/2020/04/16/the-10-types-of-queriers/

https://morganhazelwood.com/

Get Your Uniform On.

fred mcdarrah

While most folks are sheltering-in, and many are (hopefully) working their day jobs from home in pajamas (tossing on a blazer for a Zoom staff meeting, if needed), writers already accustomed to working alone probably don’t give much thought to what they’re wearing at the keyboard.

Or, so you’d think.

Blonde Write More Dot Com

Lucy Mitchell’s Blonde Write More site took a look at this in a 4.12.20 post, “How To Dress Like A Writer – 5 Key Writer Looks” (link below), lightheartedly teasing those who “dreamed about becoming a writer and want to master that writer look”. She lists five basics like the ‘Tweed Writer Look’, the ‘Geeky Writer Look’ and so on. Check it out.

Natalia Vodianova Elle Denmark

My own reignited writing endeavors have been solo and safely hidden in my writing lair with little need to worry about ‘writerly’ attire. But, when I was still a socially engaged writer taking community college night classes, attending a monthly writer’s group open mike live reading session (held in a bar to stoke shy writers’ courage so someone would actually read their works-in-progress), trekking to regional or national genre events, or even dialing way back to college days and immediately after, I’d have concurred with Ms. Mitchell that there definitely are ‘writer looks’ (or more specifically, a writer look, as in singular) adopted by the legit scribes, the wannabes and the poseurs alike.

Taylor Lashae

I never actually spotted the tweed jacket or professorial corduroy blazer/sweater vest types, cliché that they may be. I saw a stray Boho or two looking more like refugees from Green Party rallies or Grateful Dead cassette swap meets. But mostly the writers, soon-to-be’s and just-acting-the-part folks uniformly wore head-to-toe black. Intended or not, the 50’s/60’s Beat Scene revival (or what we imagined it to be) was channeled through a Millennial monotony of black Levi’s, black leggings, black tights, black sweaters, black hoodies, black flats, black work boots, black Converse, black scarves, black t-shirts, black knit dresses, black leathers, black ripped sheers, black gloves (big on the fingerless ones) and – surprisingly – black hats aplenty: Porkpies, newsboys, tams, trilbies and the old reliable, black berets. Well, you get the picture, dark as it is. And shame on me for showing up in regular Levi blue jeans with non-black work boots (from Kmart, no less), black pullover notwithstanding (a lesson learned and never repeated after enduring all the derisive glances).

Esther Canadas Peter Lindbergh Vogue Italia 3

Say what you want about monotony, but black-on-black-on-black simplifies things when rolling out of bed still bleary-eyed, whether for class or breakfast with your fellow keyboard dancers.

I’m sure there are romance novelists in billowy Laura Ashley prints, YA vampire epic masterminds in 90’s Goth gear, and committed hard-boiled crime writers in fedoras with filterless Luckies dangling from their lips (surely looking down their nose at the rest of our laptops as they muscle the keys on their manual typewriters). But I’ve only seen those at costume parties,

Esther Canadas Peter Lindbergh Vogue Italia 2

Lucy Mitchell’s Blonde Write More post was well-timed. Y’know, this sheltering-in isn’t going to last forever. Whether it’s in June or not till the Fall, we’ll all be creeping back into the bars, coffeehouses, in-person classes and all-night bitch sessions at friends’ apartments. Soon enough, it’ll be time to stow the PJ’s, yoga pants and torn t-shirts salvaged from the rag bin. I’m just kidding about all of this. (Well, sort of.) Maybe the real point is: Lets not get too used to the new reality. This too will end, even if still socially distanced, and we’ll all have to get our uniforms out of mothballs.

Esther Canadas Peter Lindbergh Vogue Italia

Photos: Fred McDarrah, Natalia Vodianova for Elle Denmark, Taylor Lashae, Esther Canadas by Peter Lindbergh

How to Dress Like a Writer – 5 Key Writer Looks. #WritersLife

Murder For Profit.

The Writer's DIG

George Dyer, writing for Writer’s Digest magazine, compares crafting a mystery tale to a chess game, with the pieces replaced by human characters, the individual moves being the plot (and presumably, its mysterious twists). The writer? The writer’s both a player and a judge, though still operating within various parameters. Dyer points to things like suddenly revealing ‘deux ex machina’ an all-new character in the closing scene to solve ‘the crime’, or implausibly arming a gangster with poison or a refined society girl with a Tommy gun as plainly breaking the rules..

What makes all of this particularly interesting for me is that George Dyer wrote it back in 1931. But we can read it now at the Writer’s Digest magazine website (link below), with a second installment to follow next week.

Writer's Digest

As the venerable writer’s resource celebrates its 100thanniversary, there’s a vast archive of guidance and info (like Dyer’s essay) to tap into. Consider a 1997 interview with David Baldacci, whose 1994 overnight success Absolute Power sold for a then unheard of $5 million advance…that ‘overnight success’ coming after an estimated 10,000 discarded pages from 11 years of writing. That’s in the April 2020 print magazine, which showed up in my mailbox on Wednesday, and just in time to help restock the to-be-read pile on my writing lair’s endtable. Though still working through “The Small Press Issue”, it’s a good one, and I have to say, I’m liking the modest shift in content seen in Writer’s Digest’s recent issues. And I’ll be looking for Part Two of George Dyer’s take on mystery story techniques next week. Kinda want to see if his words of writerly wisdom from 89 years ago still hold up.

I’m betting they will.

https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/vintage-wd-murder-for-profit-mystery-story-techniques-part-1

Lonely No More…

Lonely No More

Most people have quickly grown desperate for some human contact during this sudden sheltering-at-home. But some have entirely different adjustments to make.

One woman diligently plowed through her novel’s revisions a half hour at a time during her daily work commute’s El ride to and from the north edge of the city into the Loop. But now she’s trying to work at home full-time, while maintaining some semblance of normalcy for her second-grade daughter. Another writer had been deep in research for a biography on Martin Luther King Jr.’s life in 1957 Alabama, quite content to scroll through old newspaper archives without interruption. Now? Every knock on the door will probably be one of his two kids needing attention.

Writing for the 3.30.20 Chicago Sun-Times (link below) Stefano Esposito explains “For writers, who depend on isolation, the coronavirus presents a new challenge: Too much noise at home”.  Who’d have thought? Some folks might actually miss all the alone time, and Esposito’s article introduces the reader to several novelists and non-fiction writers adjusting to households suddenly filled with spouses and kids.

A lot of writers are probably eager to return to their preferred coffee house, settle down at their favorite public library desk, or simply wave goodbye to their housemates, heading off to work in the morning. While most folks are going batty without daily interaction with friends and coworkers, those already working at home are now adjusting to husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends — and kids — and all the normal noise and interruptions that comes with company ‘round the house…24/7. If you’ve been accustomed to banging out a chapter or two in your jammies (or not even those) before bothering to brush your teeth, or like to pound the keys till dawn with a fifth of something or other and an overflowing ashtray for companions…well, for many, those days are gone. At least for a while.

Nobody’s complaining about it, least of all the writers profiled in Stefano Esposito’s article, but it’s a topsy-turvy take on the abrupt isolation we’re all learning to grapple with.

https://chicago.suntimes.com/coronavirus/2020/3/30/21199929/writers-work-from-home-coronavirus-new-challenge-noise

Tips For Aspiring Crime Writers Enthralled By The Classics.

The Big Sleep 1978

Deluged with articles and radio/TV news touting ways to pass the time while sheltering at home? Must-see series to binge watch, reading literary classics you skipped in high school, or perhaps reviving dormant hobbies? Sure, like I have time to start a ship in a bottle. The fact is, moving the day job from the office to the writing lair has mostly meant that everything takes twice as long to accomplish. So far, there’s no time for down time.

But one thing I promised to do is to finally catch up on an entire stash of articles and essays from Crime Reads, a fat folder of sloppy screen-caps and still-working links, some a year and half old. I was too busy to read them properly or at all when first spotted, and I mean to get through these things by the time we un-shelter.

How To Write Like Chandler

Dial back with me to July of 2018 for “How To Write Like Chandler Without Becoming A Cliché” by Owen Hill (link below), one of the editors of the amazing The Annotated Big Sleep, along with Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto (well, and Raymond Chandler, of course), that jumbo 470+ page 2018 Vintage Crime/Black Lizard classic noir/crime fiction fan must-read. I’ve written about it here before. Maybe will again. But for now, it’s Owen Hill’s remarks about just how easy it is to become so enthralled by the genre’s mid-twentieth century roots that the icons, triggers and tropes can permeate our own work…and not necessarily in a good way.

The Annotated Big Sleep

Hill’s essay is subtitled “Tips For Aspiring Crime Writers Enthralled By The Classics” and he opens by listing just a few of the most obvious and iconic scenes we’d automatically associate with Raymond Chandler’s (sometimes by way of Dashiell Hammett’s) work, and he notes, “Today it’s difficult to imagine a detective novel without at least an homage to these and other Chandleresque tropes. What’s a fledgling writer to do? How to make it all seem fresh?”

Aside from avoiding the most worn out clichés and stereotypes, Hill recommends reading. And reading a lot.

Chandler? Well, sure. How can you not? Hill adds James M. Cain, Ross MacDonald and notes that Chandler himself learned second-hand by reading the pulps, especially Earle Stanley Gardner and Hammett. I’ll add in a diverse bunch of notorious characters from James Ellroy to Sandra Scoppettone, Vicki Hendricks and early Megan Abbott, Loren D. Estleman and Stuart Kaminsky, Sue Grafton and George Pellecanos, Max Allan Collins and Sara Gran, both Kanes (Henry and Frank)…and of course, Mickey Spillane. My list could go on and on. You’ll have your own to add.

The Big Sleep 1978 - 2

There’s a very fine line between homage and pastiche, and narrow as the distinction may be, it’s made worse by being blurry and ill-defined. What one reader/writer considers reverent, another sees as laughably hokey. I struggle with this all the time, whether working in period settings (much of my own stuff set in the late 1950’s to very early 1960’s) or in ‘the now’. Once the fellows sport suspenders and fedoras, the women wear hats and gloves, the cars have fat fenders or fins and the gumshoes plunk coins in pay phone slots, a writer’s in treacherous territory, where deadly clichés lurk around every corner.

Hill’s solution is the same one recommended by nearly every writing how-to book. Read, read and read some more…though obviously, leaving a little time for your fingers to tap dance across the keyboard. Makes sense. Only by getting a firm handle on the wide diversity of voices, settings, situations and styles a thriving genre comprises, and by seeing first-hand how those who’ve gone before us have synthesized the genre’s iconography into their own fresh perspectives can anyone possibly hope – however humbly – to put their own spin on things. It’s okay to be enthralled or even to go all fanboy/girl over genre classics, so long as we don’t become clichés ourselves.

So, you’ll indulge me if I include some pics of Robert Mitchum from the 1978 The Big Sleep in this post instead of the more revered, and obvious, Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe himself.

https://crimereads.com/how-to-write-like-chandler-without-becoming-a-cliche/

 

Fame, Success And Money, Money, Money!

jessica chastain by ellen von unwerth

No one loves the I.R.S. (though I could warm up to them considerably if they’d cut loose with a certain someone’s tax returns), but they do provide sensible parameters to the potentially blurry grey zone between a profession and a hobby. If I understand things correctly, current tax regulations require ‘hobby’ income to be taxed like any other income, though for now, the expenses incurred in the course of pursuing that hobby can’t be deducted unless they exceed 2% of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income. Example: If you earn money as a writer or artist, you have to claim that income. But you can’t deduct expenses for supplies, fees, etc. unless those add up to at least 2% of your total income. If your day job paid $75K that year, then you’d need at least $1,500 in expenses. I believe that rule will change in 2026 and expenses (under certain limitations, of course) will be deductible, presuming the income is reported.

Compared to artists, photographers or musicians, writers actually get off pretty easy when it comes to out-of-pocket costs. It’s not as if we didn’t all own computers already. But how much income might writers actually be earning, and from what sources?

Writing at The Guardian, Lynn Steger Strong, author of the novel Strong due out in July references a 2018 Author’s Guild study which noted that the participating published authors’ median income for all writing activity was just over $6,000 in 2017, down from $10,500 only eight years earlier. More sobering: median income for all published authors based solely on book-related activity was a mere $3,100…and an approx. 25% of those participants earned no income at all that year. Steger Strong’s article “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be A Writer If You Can Afford It” looked at the reality of pursuing a career as a writer, which for all but a select few individuals must be supplemented not only by teaching, grants and fellowships, but quite possibly by generous relatives or – most likely – an employed spouse/significant other as well.

Only a few days ago, Alison Stine, author of Road Out Of Winter, due out this September, wrote at Literary Hub about the “haves and have-nots at America’s biggest writer’s conference” in “The Problem Of Money And Access At AWP”. The Association Of Writing Programs annual event (AWP) is billed as North America’s largest literary conference, with panels on writing, publishing, academic jobs and more. Registration is $250…plus travel, lodging, meals, etc., of course. Stine rightly assumes that a good portion of the 13,000 attendees were there on their MFA/PhD program’s dime. Bottom line: Unless you coincidentally lived down the street from the hotel or convention center, attending a writing/publishing conference or workshop is likely to cost a grand at least, and that still might involve discount travel, doubling up with a roomie and packing some sandwiches (or at least stuffing your backpack at the free buffet…if there is one).

writers digest march 2020

The current March 2020 Writer’s Digest features “The Frugal Writer’s Guide To Everything” by Elizabeth Simms, author of the Lillian Byrd Crime Series. Byrd lists suggestions for getting writing supplies, memberships, software and more without letting go of too much cash. A cynic might argue that the first place to start would be reading writer’s magazines at the library instead of subscribing, but I, for one, would sorely miss WD in my mailbox.

Writing’s never been a meaningful part of my income. My own writing vocation (which is a nice word for a glorified hobby) is divided into two phases, interrupted a while ago by intrusive real-life issues and only recently reignited. During ‘phase one’ I made some money, but a tally of every nickel earned from multiple sources might only be enough to pay cash for a decent new car. A decent new car…not a fancy fully-loaded supercar. I rely on doing a good job at the day job to keep the heat turned on and groceries in the pantry.

In the small press and ‘micro-press’ arenas, compensation may be anemic advances or royalty-only arrangements, per-word rates that would’ve been turned down by the hard-working pulp fiction scribes seventy and eighty years ago, payment-in-copies or even unpaid online publication. Back in the game, I recognize that publishers will pay what their business model allows, but my interest in publication ‘opportunities’ for little or no money has dissipated. For the undergrads, creative writing MFA’s and exponentially growing legions of writer wannabe’s with fewer options, it’s a genuine puzzler and bound to get more vexing as time goes on. The evolving publishing and bookselling marketplaces point to declining earning levels for the creators and ‘content generators’…i.e. the writers. Financial democratization via self/hybrid publishing remains elusive for most in a shockingly overcrowded arena.

Mind you, there’s no whining or “Woe is me” here, and shame on the creatives who wallow in that sort of self-pity. Griping about the hardships artistic types endure may be a time-honored Boho pastime, but no one forced me – or any other writer – to pursue endeavors offering worse odds than winning Lotto. Hopefully, we do it because we want to (or if feeling heroic, because we’re driven to).

Fame, success and money, money, money? As always, they’re available for a select few, with smaller portions parceled out for still a few more, but little left over for the rest. Sucks? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean that I – and most artists, musicians, actors, dancers…and writers – won’t keep at it anyway.

Photo: Jessica Chastain by Ellen non Unwerth

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