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/

 

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

 

Why Will No-One Publish My Novel?

Why Will No-One Publish My Novel?

Fay Weldon’s Why Will No-One Publish My Novel? A Handbook For The Rejected Writer was a library find from this past weekend, but I’ll get my own copy now to keep on shelf beside the very few other writer’s how-to books I cherish like Stephen King’s On Writing (my favorite), Lawrence Block’s Writing The Novel From Plot To Print To Pixels, Elements Of Fiction by Walter Mosely or Writing Mysteries edited by Sue Grafton.

It would’ve been easy to browse right past this little gem of a book, only 4.5” x 7” with extra-heavy carboard covers like a children’s book. But I’m so glad I spotted it. Weldon’s book is a quick read, compiling a series of essays addressing the many, many reasons a writer’s projects are rejected (or simply overlooked), including all the common mistakes writers make from manuscript through submission, while also probing publishing industry issues that inevitably work against writers. The tone’s light-hearted and chatty, particularly in the first third of the book. Weldon’s wise words will get their share of knowing nods from writers in the trenches, cruel truths relayed along with more than a few chuckles. I challenge anyone – writer or not – not to laugh at Weldon’s imaginary literary agency meeting in her sixth chapter.

Fay Weldon Books

I often forego writer’s books that I probably ought to read, in-store skimming suggesting the content’s the same ol’ stuff and not worth the money, or just as often, unsure what I’ll learn from a how-to book’s author with a skimpy resume of their own (no shortage of those among Kindle and e-books). Maybe that’s why I keep returning for re-reads with King, Block, Grafton, Mosley and a few others. Fay Weldon may not be as familiar a name in the U.S as in the UK, but she’s been at it since the 1960’s, with thirty novels to her credit along with story collections, children’s books and non-fiction titles, all those following a career as an advertising copywriter and work in serial fiction, radio and teleplays. Oh yeah…and she was made a CBE, which makes her a Knight or a Lady (not sure which, but then we did fight a revolution over here so wouldn’t have to worry about those things). Suffice to say she’s been at it a while, knows what she’s talking about, and is generous with anecdotes throughout this book.

Why Will No-One Publish My Novel – A Handbook For The Rejected Writer came out in the UK in 2018, but took a while to pop up on my library’s shelf. (Technically, a nearby library. My library only has half a dozen writer’s books, if that.) I’ll be glad when I get my own copy – this one’s a keeper.

1,667 Words Per Day

NaNoWriMo Montage

No NaNoWriMo for me this November, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be eagerly watching posts at WordPress, Tumblr, Pinterest and across the far-too-many bookish and writerly sites and blogs I follow so I can share the adventure with those brave souls who’ll take the pledge this year.

NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month, that being November, and more specifically, NaNoWriMo is the annual challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel during the thirty days of November. It’s been going since 1999, with nearly 800,000 active novelists participating and over 360,000 novels completed.

Grant Faulkner and the NaNoWriMo staff’s Inkwell column in the current issue of Writer’s Digest magazine address ten key NaNoWriMo expectations vs. truths (it being “The Truth Issue” of WD), key among them the understandable assumption that the NaNoWriMo challenge is undertaken only by first-time writers and the unpublished. In fact, prior NaNoWriMo participants have included authors like Sara Gruen (Water For Elephants), Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus), Marissa Meyer (Cinder, Scarlet, etc.), Elizabeth Acavedo (The Poet X) and other successfully published and even bestselling writers.

NaNoWriMo Site

The NaNoWriMo organization (link below) states: “NaNoWriMo believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide structure, community and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals and build new worlds – on and off the page.” Participation is free. The NaNoWriMo site offers support and tools to writers taking the pledge. And it’s a daunting challenge. 50,000 words no longer adds up to a complete novel, but it’s a generous portion. And that works out to 1,667 words per day. Everyday. For an entire month, one that kicks off the holiday season with all of the activities and family obligations that might involve. But for a would-be novelist who’s struggled to start, or felt too intimidated by the seemingly overwhelming process, the annual NaNoWriMo event may be precisely the impetus needed to unleash their inner writer and finally commit to making a meaningful start.

No doubt there are many publishers, editors, agents, booksellers and published novelists who recoil in horror at anything that helps to pump hundreds of thousands of novelists – many if not most being newcomers — and hundreds of thousands of novels into an already overcrowded marketplace. But no one suggests that the 50,000 words generated by each of the successful participants will be publishable, or a complete first draft. Or, even any good. But they will represent the vital first step in a daunting and time consumptive creative and executional process, and for many, may be the beginning of a successful ongoing effort.

Several years ago, I pledged to give NaNoWriMo a try. Much of that October was spent collecting notes and references, tightening up my outline and doing my best to ‘clear the deck’ of potential intrusions by Halloween night — ready to plunge in right at the stroke of midnight and the start of November. And I was actually doing slightly better than 1,667 words per day for a solid week and a half…till day job mandates intervened with firm directives demanding multiple late nights and weekends, and for weeks to come (almost Xmas before things slowed down, in fact). Within days, it became apparent that I’d get no further than the nearly 25,000 words I had in hand. Well, not if I wanted to continue to draw a paycheck. Reluctantly, I gave up.

This year? New challenges I don’t need at the moment. Aside from ongoing querying for The Stiletto Gumshoe, I’m 40,000 words into its sequel, and have started two related short stories. It’s no time to pause to undertake a NaNoWriMo challenge.

But for those who will – or are even considering it – you’d better plan to get your jack-o-lantern carved ahead of time and to finish this year’s Halloween costume soon. Probably best to volunteer for the Halloween Party’s designated driver role come Thursday the 31st unless you’re one of those writers who believe that the best work’s done when sloppy drunk. ‘Course, when you’re obliged to average 1,667 words per day every day, even sober writing could sound like it came from someone who’s had a few.

Good luck to all the brave souls who undertake the NaNoWriMo challenge this year!

https://nanowrimo.org/what-is-nanowrimo

The Rules.

The Rules

If you stop by here at The Stiletto Gumshoe, there’s no way you’d be unfamiliar with Elmore Leonard. There’s a good chance you’ve liked his work. I know I do. A lot. Enough, in fact, to have multiple editions of some of his novels. I may be notoriously acquisitive, but I’m no collector. Nonetheless, I just couldn’t pass some up, figuring I could use redundant copies for re-reads, which certain Leonard novels are bound to get. Case in point: I read (and still have) my hardcover of Up In Honey’s Room, but how could I pass up the saucy little paperback edition that’s tucked right beside it on my bookshelves?

Up In Honey's Room

Up In Honey's Room 2

Born in New Orleans in 1925, raised mostly in Detroit, Elmore Leonard did three years in the Navy Seabees during WWII, went to college after the war and worked as an ad agency copywriter for several years, even once he’d begun writing. Originally penning westerns – Hombre, 3:10 To Yuma, Joe Kidd being some of the better known titles, he later moved to crime fiction and thrillers. Get Shorty, Be Cool, 52 Pickup, Mr. Majestyk and Out Of Sight are just a few better known novels and among Leonard’s stories and books that have been adapted to films. He passed away in 2013, following complications from a stroke that he looked to be recovering from. No surprise, his books have sold tens of millions of copies.

Elmore Leonard’s style was distinctive from the start but became even more so after he began writing crime and thrillers. The prose is spare, straightforward and unadorned, textbook examples of a highly skilled writer employing less words but only the absolute right words. Elmore Leonard’s “The Rules” are seen often, memorized by some writers, no doubt, and were the basis for what became his Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing.

Stop over at Crime Reads (link below) for an intriguing and deeper look at Elmore Leonard’s “Rules” from a 1998 conversation with Martin Amis. For the writers among you (this being “A Writer’s Blog That’s Not”), Leonard’s “The Rules” are shown yet again above. They’re kind of like the Ten Commandments, and I for one, strive to adhere to them. This past Friday would’ve been Elmore Leonard’s 94thbirthday. We can’t be overly saddened when a person gets 80++ good years, but we certainly can still mourn the loss, and think about the words left unwritten.

https://crimereads.com/celebrating-elmore-leonards-rules-for-writing/

Writer’s Digest’s Good News

wd - nov-dec

While it’s always a treat to discover a new issue of Writer’s Digest magazine in my mailbox, I was doubly pleased to find the November/December 2019 issue after a particularly unpleasant day-job grind this Thursday. I’ll still revisit the magazine over the weekend to read a couple articles more carefully, but the issue got a cover-to-cover browse-through over a very late dinner (Two hot dogs, in case in matters…it was gourmet night. And I put ketchup on one, but don’t tell anyone. They hang you ‘round these parts for putting ketchup on a dog.)

Right upfront editor-in-chief Ericka McIntyre’s column announced WD’s June 2019 acquisition by California-based Active Interest Media, a multi-division lifestyle, outdoors and special interest magazine group. So readers can rest easy after some worrisome silence following the bankruptcy of WD’s former parent company, F+W Media. AIM is promoting Writer’s Digest magazine and writersdigest.com on its site, so let’s assume the venerable publication will be around to celebrate its upcoming 100th anniversary. Unclear if AIM also acquired Writer’s Digest Books, publishers of numerous writers’ how-to titles and annual directories. Ads for WD books were noticeably absent from this November/December 2019 issue.

“The Truth Issue” is solid throughout, and while it may just be my imagination, I detected a more serious editorial tone, right down to the Amy Jones interview with author Amor Towles (Rules of Civility and A Gentleman In Moscow). Well, real or only perceived, evolving tone or not, I was just pleased to hear all will be well for Writer’s Digest, it being hard to imagine a writer’s world without it.

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/

 

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.

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