The Future Of Crime Fiction.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but while Writer’s Digest magazine celebrates its 100 years of publication, it’s also demonstrating a newfound maturity that seemed to be missing in recent years. The current September/October 2020 issue – a special double-sized “The Future Is…” issue – is a meaty read with instructive and thought-provoking articles from front to back. Practical business matters are well covered by Jeff Somers discussing his experience working with agent Janet Reid, followed by Cassandra Lipp and Robert Lee Brewer’s “The Next Step”, an 11-page roundup of twenty literary agents. In “Female, Powerful And Real”, Lorena Koppel-Torres shares her thoughts on writing authentic, relatable female characters in YA fiction, but her remarks apply to any audience. Susan Shapiro’s “Genre Fluidity” (Note: “Genre”, not “Gender”) didn’t simply look at genre-bending projects but actually reworking in-progress manuscripts into altogether different genres. Genre bending fluidity felt perfectly timed as I wrap up Elizabeth Hand’s latest genre-bending Cass Neary masterpiece, The Book Of Lamps And Banners (more about that one soon).   

But of particular interest to a mystery/crime fiction reader and writer was David Corbett’s “The Future Of Crime Fiction”, a roundtable including Alafair Burke, Rachel Howzell Hall and six other writers discussing the evolving law enforcement landscape, criminals’ countermeasures and how crime writers will keep up. This hit close to home. I’m intrigued by the many ways imaginative writers concoct genuinely puzzling mysteries in contemporary settings where routine (but ever changing) technology would dazzle any classic gumshoe, leaving Spade’s, Marlowe’s and Hammer’s heads spinning till their fedoras fell off. Our frighteningly detailed digital footprints and increasingly pervasive surveillance (and the easy online access for pros and amateurs alike) provide rich, new tactical fodder for mystery writers on one hand, but at the same time, diminish some of the unknown and hard-to-uncover that was the core of classic mysteries for decades. 

I’ll admit it: I’m more comfortable in an era in which the entire world isn’t a touch screen away. As my ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ character began to take shape in my head a few years back, I always imagined her residing somewhere in the late 1950’s through mid-1960’s. There’s no iPhone in her purse, and even when she doesn’t need a pocketful of change for a pay phone, she’s flipping through the Yellow Pages and chipping her nail polish on a rotary dial, along with a zillion other things that made up a sixty-year-old ‘then’. Frankly, some of them make it a little bit easier to concoct a ‘mystery’. Mind you, I’m not a nostalgia geek, and wouldn’t trade places with 2020 and 1959 (well, maybe for a day or two, purely for note-taking and observation). That’s fine for me and this project. For the braver writers turning their back on the ‘then’ and dealing with the ‘now’, the remarks Burke, Hall and crew provided in David Corbett’s Writer’s Digest article are well worth checking out. 

 Illustrations: Sam Peffer and Raymond Pease

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.

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

 

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

Funny You Should Ask.

Funny You Should Ask

No schmoozing high profile agents here, just to be clear.

Veteran literary agent Barbara Poelle of NYC’s Irene Goodman Literary Agency writes the “Funny You Should Ask” Q&A column in Writer’s Digest magazine, and has compiled 100+ writers’ questions in her 2019 book Funny You Should Ask – Mostly Serious Answers To Mostly Serious Questions About The Book Publishing Industry. This Writer’s Digest Books 200+ page trade pb, with a foreword by Holly Root of the Holly Root Literary Agency, might look like a trifle at first glance when you see it on shelf. Don’t be fooled. Poelle’s lobbing zingers in an overall smartass-but-friendly tone in most of her answers and the introductions to each of the three main sections, but the fun (and it is genuinely fun) is there to make serious, no-nonsense and sometimes downright depressing information go down easy. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” …right?

Face it: Writers aren’t special. Writing isn’t a sacred endeavor. Like all creatives – painters, photographers, dancers, sculptors, actors, musicians, etc. – writers face astronomical lottery-like odds in their effort to elevate a hobby to a vocation and a vocation to a profession. You get it. I get it. Even if we all occasionally forget it. That’s precisely why we need easy to digest books like Poelle’s Funny You Should Ask (and her column of the same name in each WD issue) to make us confront the pragmatic issues artsy-smartsy scribes so easily lose track of. If the book compiles Q&A’s from Poelle’s column, is all original material or a mix of both, I couldn’t say. And couldn’t care less. It’s not like I’m about to dig through Writer’s Digest back issues to check. But I can say that it was fun to read from front to back and really helpful in many, many spots. Any writer’s book that gets down to business about the nuts and bolts of the query/submission process and provides inside peeks into what really goes on inside literary agencies and publishers is invaluable. That’s not to say that books on craft (and Lord knows, there are a lot of them) aren’t useful. But to a degree, the craft will refine itself in the doing. But once a project’s ready to share (and if it’s really ready to share) is when the really befuddling stuff begins for most writers. Trust me: You could pick worse writing books to read, and you could certainly pick less entertaining ones.

This was the perfect pre-day-job morning coffee-in-the-car book, knocked off in three such mornings (each of which got extended a bit because I didn’t want to close the book and head to the office). Frankly, I was kind of bummed when I reached the end and got to Poelle’s backmatter, a couple dozen pages of charts and exercises. If she’d wanted to include another hundred chuckle-worthy but worth remembering replies to common writers’ questions, I’d have been all-in for it.

And yes, for the record, I did previously query Barbara Poelle at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, and quite early on (maybe too early, in hindsight, my project’s many and deep revisions coming later). I received a courteous auto-reply to confirm receipt of the sub (which I wish more agencies did) but nothing more, and we all know that in the querying process, silence isn’t golden…it’s a rejection. Oh well. Funny you should ask, but there were more than a few good Q&A’s about precisely that kind of thing in the first section of Funny You Should Ask.

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.

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.

But What About The Magazine?

Writer's Digest

No news yet about the fate of Writer’s Digest magazine as a result of its parent company bankruptcy, but as of June 7th, Penguin Random House, the world’s largest trade book publisher, acquired the F+W Media Books division, which includes over 2,000 titles and accounts for some $22 million in annual revenue. That’s good news for writers interested in seeing the extensive catalog of Writer’s Digest how-to and non-fiction titles remaining in print, and quite possibly, enjoying even better distribution in bookstores with PRH’s muscle behind them. Some critics complain that separating F+W Media’s Books division from the magazines, websites, online courses, etc. is unwise. The business model was based not on books vs. ‘other’, but on individual areas of interest – writing and other hobbies. Keep in mind that F+W Media published titles in many different hobby and special interest categories. Not sure what suitors are in line for Writer’s Digest the magazine (the bankruptcy auction date for the non-book assets and properties of F+W Media has already passed), and I see no news at WD’s website, or any of the usual online ‘buzz’ about it. Guess I’ll just continue to watch my mailbox when the next issue is due.

Closing In On A Hundred Years.

Writers Digest Masthead

Writer’s Digest magazine put out a call from their website at writersdigest.com for readers, subscribers and contributors to share their memories of how the magazine has impacted their writing, all in anticipation of celebrating the publication’s 100th anniversary starting in January 2020.

If you spotted my post from a week ago, Publisher’s Weekly and various business publications reported that Writer’s Digest’s parent company F+W Media is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy since earlier this month, which makes that 100th anniversary landmark suddenly sound a little ‘iffy’. But I choose not to overreact. Chapter 11 can enable reorganization, often in conjunction with the sale of selected assets, liquidation of money-losing operations, negotiations with creditors and a leaner but more stable organization as a result. Still, sometimes it’s just a prelude to something worse. Business works in mysterious ways.

Writing Mysteries 2nd Edition

When I wrote that previous post, I had the Writer’s Digest Books 2019 Guide To Literary Agents sitting beside my keyboard. Right now I have the second edition of Writer’s Digest Books’ Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton (RIP), an older but pretty pristine 2002 edition from a used bookstore, packed full of helpful guidance from a long list of the genre’s heavy hitters, and sitting in that very same spot in front of me.

F+W Media owns some crafting, outdoors and collectibles publications that could vanish without my noticing, though their subscribers might not agree. But it’s hard to imagine a world without Writer’s Digest magazine, or Writer’s Digest books for that matter. 100 years? That’s one heck of a legacy. So lets all keep our fingers crossed that the magazine, its subsidiary businesses and the parent company find a solution to their current problems.

 

Writer’s Digest In Jeopardy?

Writer's Digest

Seen in the current issue of Publisher’s Weekly, and then corroborated in Forbes and various business press publications: F+W Media filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection about two weeks ago, listing only $2.5 million in cash on hand against over $100 million in debts.

Who is F+W Media? That’s the publisher of Writer’s Digest magazine and Writer’s Digest books. Actually, F+W Media is the publisher of over 40 special interest/enthusiast magazines and some 2,000 books. Between work and home, I subscribe to three F+W Media titles: Writer’s Digest, Print and HOW magazines, and was about to renew a lapsed subscription to The Artist’s Magazine (may take a wait and see on that renewal though). And sitting beside my keyboard right now is the 28th Annual Edition 2019 Guide To Literary Agents.

Art Magazine Montage

The why’s and how’s should be no mystery. Since 2015, subscriptions to their many titles have declined from around 33 million to just over 21 million, while ad revenues dropped from nearly $21 million to just shy of $14 million. Creditors include printers, paper companies, leaseholders and software companies, between 1,000 to 5,000 creditors, like R.R. Donnelley, Adobe and others.

F+W Media’s name comes from its earliest publications: Farm Quarterly and Writer’s Digest. In addition to art and professional graphic design magazines, they publish diverse titles about antiques, collectibles, crafts, sewing, hunting, and even Gun Digest. Whether a friendly savior will appear, or if individual titles and the book business can be successfully sold is unclear. I can live without a beading magazine or Gun Digest, but some can’t. But Writer’s Digest magazine was launched in 1920, long before I or anyone seeing this was around, and many of the very writers talked about here once (and perhaps still) read it, were interviewed in it or even wrote for it. It would be hard to imagine a world without Writer’s Digest magazine, should that occur.

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