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.

Penny-A-Word.

The Penny A Word Brigade

This book may be targeted to writers, but I’m certain any fan of the classic pulp magazine era would love it. Blood ‘N’ Thunder Presents: The Penny-A-Word Brigade – Pulp Fictioneers Discuss Their Craft edited by Ed Hulse is a 2017 200++ page oversize trade pb from Murania Press, the publishers of Blood ‘N’ Thunder. In addition to being the editor-in-chief and publisher of Blood ‘N’ Thunder (and the head-honcho at Murania, I think), Hulse is the author and editor of over 30 books (maybe many more) on vintage pulp magazines, cliffhanger serials and retro Hollywood stars.

Hulse collected 28 articles written by pulp magazine writers, editors and agents that originally appeared in Writer’s Digest, The Writer, Author & Journalist and other magazines between 1922 through 1949. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Pulp writers groused about one and two cents-per-word pay rates then, which writers today might be happy to get instead of payment-in-copies for chapbooks and zines or no-pay at all for online publications. The writers’ and editors’ how-to articles may use obsolete references and point to unknown authors long gone, but the info resonates today as well as it did eighty and ninety years ago.

If you’re a mystery/crime fiction reader (and obviously, if you’re a pulp fiction fan), you’ll get a kick out of this book. And if you’re a mystery/crime fiction writer or wannabe, there’s a lot of mighty useful info here.  And, take a moment to check out Murania Press’ site (link below) for a treasure trove of Blood ‘N’ Thunder back issues, books, collectibles, links and more.

Murania Press

www.muraniapress.com

As Close As I’ll Get To The Decameron…For Now.

Turn To Stone

Suckered in some time ago by a handsome faux-leather hot stamped and embossed hardcover edition of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, complete with Gustave Dore illustrations (that 19thcentury French engraver who’s still inspiring countless SF/Fantasy artists today), I took the plunge into a daunting reading experience for someone more accustomed to Mickey Spillane and mystery pulp reprints. Prudently, I had an annotated eBook edition handy at all times in order to make some sense of every second or third line.

But it was still pretty intimidating.

The Decameron

So, try another?

Maybe it’s time to dial back a couple hundred years to attempt fellow Florentine Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, perhaps in one of those nifty editions with the Rockwell Kent illustrations (and hopefully with another annotated eBook handy)?

But you know, with snow falling here since Wednesday afternoon and lake-effect snow squalls forecasted straight through Sunday, it’s much more fun to think about Eleanora Stone buzzing around the Tuscan countryside on a Vespa, with the Summer of 1963 rolling into a warm Italian Autumn. Which is precisely what Ellie Stone got to do (however briefly) in James W. Ziskin’s Turn To Stone (2020), the seventh novel in his Ellie Stone mystery series. Now, it’s not really a retelling of or necessarily a homage to The Decameron, in which seven women and three men hid from the Black Plague in a Tuscan villa, wiling away the hours by sharing 100 tales from the educational to the more ribald. Instead, Ziskin’s early 1960’s ‘girl reporter’ finds herself quarantined in a remote but opulent Florentine palazzo, with some of the reluctant guests (and Ellie herself) sharing stories after dinners — not coincidentally from The Decameron — stories the reader will study carefully to hunt through for clues to the novel’s mystery. (Not that it helped me one bit, but I’m truly awful at picking up on clues.)

Ellie Stone Series

I fell in love with Ziskin’s Ellie Stone mystery series and Eleanora Stone herself from the opening pages of the first novel, Styx And Stone (2013). Smart, savvy, assertive yet very authentically a person of her time (that book set in 1960), Ellie Stone fled Manhattan academia with strained family relationships and tragedies all part of her personal baggage, finding her way to a reporter’s job at a small-town newspaper in New Holland, New York. There she’ll solve shocking local crimes, much to the chagrin of suitably 1960’s boorish male coworkers and the law. We first encounter her doing double-duty trying to solve her own father’s assault and murder among the Columbia professorial crowd back in NYC.

Subsequent entries in the evolving series have found Ellie solving other local crimes. But author Ziskin presumably confronted the problem vexing other writers penning successful mystery/crime fiction series set in small towns: Just how many brutal murders can occur in one little burg? I mean, once the body count hits a certain number, won’t the state police or the Attorney General take notice and send in the troops? (Mind you, that would’ve been William P. Rogers in 1960 or Bobbie Kennedy by 1963, not the current office holder, who’d surely be too busy plumbing new depths of sycophancy to alert the US Marshals.) So, Ellie has also managed to stumble into trouble while on vacation in the Adirondacks, on assignment in Los Angeles, at upstate New York horse tracks and now in Turn To Stone, in Florence, Italy for a symposium honoring her late Columbia professor father.

And she’s barely unpacked before the trouble erupts: The symposium’s host has been found dead, his body floating in the Arno river. Accident? Suicide? Murder? While it casts an obvious pall over the event, a pre-arranged post-conference weekend outside Florence is still a must-attend affair, though it goes bad quick enough when the threat of a Rubella outbreak quarantines the group of students, professors and various hangers-on…one of that group quite likely a murderer. And there’s no shortage of culprits hiding secrets and personal grudges going back to the Spanish Civil War, the dark days of Mussolini’s fascist regime, entrenched anti-Semitism and the horror of the Nazi occupation, casting the shadow of guilt on fellow academics, students and relatives alike.

Gun play? Car chases? Thrills and chills? Well, aside from a close call with a wild boar (you read that right), this novel steers clear of conventional crime fiction tricks and many common mystery tropes, though prior books in the series have had their share of excitement. No, I get the feeling this particular novel was a result of the author’s passionate love affair with the region’s culture, language, cuisine and troubled history, Ziskin degreed in Romance languages and literature, a prior director of New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo, collaborating with Italian writers and academics on cultural events. (Write what you know, writers are often told.) But for all the references to Renaissance art, literature and troubled 20thcentury tragedies – and there are many – you somehow also come away with some breezier visions of 1950’s-60’s thrillers and Continental rom-com films, easy to picture Suzanne Pleshette astride a motor-scooter or Tony Franciosa climbing out of a red Italian sports car. That is, with a horrible sense of dread hanging over everything the entire time.

I was busy as all hell with my day job when I got my hands-on Turn To Stone, leisurely reading time at a premium, and this chunky trade pb a whisker shy of 350 pages. But I blew through it in three evenings (with all too brief pre-dawn pre-work coffee-to-go in my car time added in). It doesn’t take gangsters with snub-noses, thugs with badges or scheming femmes fatales to make a mystery a page-turner, and Turn To Stone’s elegant writing and wonderfully complex story hooked me from the first page when Ellie boards the Pan Am 707 for Rome, and kept me hooked till she was on her way back to New Holland, where she might just have been the catalyst that ignited Beatlemania in upstate New York (you’ll have to read it to get that).

Yes, I was already a fan, but I betcha James W. Ziskin gets to you too. But as for The Decameron? I still have to think about that…

Like Christmas In January.

Turn To Stone

I may have to vanish for a week, or at least play hooky from the day job, it being like Christmas in late January for me.

Just got my mitts on James W. Ziskin’s new Ellie Stone mystery, Turn To Stone, (a bit beefier than the preceding six books at nearly 350 pages) with the NYC-via-upstate New York small town newspaper reporter jetting off to Italy in 1963. Ziskin’s savvy and engaging Eleanora Stone played a part in nudging me to get to work on my own projects, validating the notion of a female mystery/crime fiction protagonist in a setting other than the much more common Roaring Twenties, Depression era 1930’s, WWII and postwar late 40’s/early 1950’s…or today, for that matter.

The Words I Never Wrote

But the Christmas In January stocking holds more than just Ellie Stone. I now also have Jane Thynne’s new The Words I Never Wrote. How bittersweet to flip to her author bio on the dustjacket’s back flap to read “…the widow of the author Philip Kerr”. I’m still grieving Kerr’s loss and the thought of never reading another new Bernie Gunther novel again. I devoured each of Thynne’s excellent Clara Vine series books, and am eager to see what this non-series novel will be.

More to say about these once done, though I know I’ll be completely humbled both masters’ work.

Chicago: 1959

The Girls In 3-B

If you’re the blog-reading sort who takes notes, then you’d have caught more than once that my “The Stiletto Gumshoe” work-in-progress is set in Chicago’s ethnic blue-collar bungalow belt in 1959. Why that particular year? It intrigues me because it’s right on the cusp of major social changes that are about to explode in the early 1960’s…but not quite there yet. There’s enough of the old to easily link with the look and feel of so many familiar noir tropes, but so other things intrude into that comfortable but shadowy black & white movie world and hard-boiled novel milieu to continually hint at the disruptions soon to occur.

Like any writer, I accumulated scads of references from sites, blogs, magazines and books, loaded up on photos, catalogs and ads, all of which I scroll through periodically to keep my head firmly in the right mindset when approaching the keyboard. It’s too easy to picture episodes of I Love Lucy or Father Knows Best and simplify everything into Elvis, poodle skirts and sock hops if imagining the 1950’s, when in fact 1959 probably looked and felt much more like the pre-British Invasion Camelot era.

Crine Reads - Write About The Past

Raymond Fleishchmann, author of How Quickly She Disappears, writes in his 1.24.20 Crimes Reads piece “What We Write About When We Write About The Past” (link below) that “…a successful novel set in the past should certainly include many textural details: that is, depictions of seemingly insignificant ways in which yesteryear differs from today”. But just the same, Fleishchmann points out, “…a successful novel set in the past will intentionally reject many of the stereotypes we have about the past, and as a result that novel’s distant time period might feel surprisingly modern. Certain readers may even mistake this quality for inaccuracy”. He reminds us that in many ways the past isn’t as long-ago as we might suppose and people do, think and feel many of the same things today as they did then. “The human condition defies time,” Fleishchmann says, and I consider that a memorable line.

After browsing photos and ads, there’s nothing better to rely on than books from that era. Note: Not books about that era. From that era.

I read Valerie Taylor’s 1959 The Girls In 3B a few years back and I suppose it even played a part in settling on 1959 for my own work, along with Rona Jaffe’s The Best Of Everything from the previous year (along with its 1959 film adaptation…more about that one later). Valerie Taylor’s (pen name of Velma Young) third novel tells the story of three rural small-town friends – Annice, Pat and Barby – who move to Chicago in search of independence, romance and adventure. Sharing a grungy Hyde Park third floor flat, one signs up for college classes, hoping to be a poet. One gets a clerical job at a publisher and one a stock clerk’s position in a large State Street department store. Though the novel ends with more or less happy (or happy enough) resolutions for each of the three young women, they’ll first endure sexual assaults, unplanned pregnancy/abandonment and the thoroughly ingrained economic, cultural and societal sexism of the time…including predatorial Beatnik boys’ unexpected misogyny. The novel may have been marketed as being racy, though it really isn’t. And it’s been embraced as one of the 1950’s/1960’s era lesbian pulp novels (Taylor’s other books certainly key titles from that era) though only one of the three women ultimately discovers some real happiness with another woman. Still, that’s notable nonetheless, Valerie Taylor recognized for bucking the prevailing vintage lesbian pulp novel trends demanding that gay and lesbian characters always come to bad ends…even if that was only going straight.

james meese the girls in 3-b preliminary

It’d be nice to have the original paperback. The cover’s preliminary art is shown here as well, a frequent post at many vintage pulp/paperback/illustration sites (I’ve seen it credited James Meese but am unsure about that). But I read The Girls In 3B – and just finished re-reading it – in The Feminist Press’ Femmes Fatales series handsome 2012 edition, complete with Lisa Walker’s detailed 20+ page afterword.

With some recent input from a skilled Beta reader in hand (an excellent 4+ page single spaced write-up, no less!) after an over-the-holidays read of my continually re-revising work, The Girls In 3B seemed like an ideal read before attacking my manuscript. And I’m going to squeeze in Rona Jaffe’s The Best Of Everything as well as the movie over the next week, merrily overdosing on 1959 for a while.

https://crimereads.com/what-we-write-about-when-we-write-about-the-past/

 

Here’s To Another Hundred.

The First Hundred Words

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

Writers Digest Jan Feb 2020

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

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

Straight Talk From Courtney Maum.

Montage Half

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

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

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

Before And After The Book Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Broken Heart To Go…

Martinis And A Broken Heart To Go

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

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

There are worse ways to spend a weekend…

Jazz Noir

Resolutions: None. Only An Agenda.

New Years Eve 2020

With that clock ticking closer to midnight, this duo looked more apprehensive than enthusiastic. Perhaps, like many, they failed to make a suitable list of New Year’s resolutions for 2020.

Count me among that lot.

I have no resolutions for this new decade (which I realize technically doesn’t commence until 2021), knowing from prior experience that I’d never keep them anyway. My vices are few, drinking modestly (if even that), donut shop coffee my drug of choice, reasonably thrifty, diligent in the day job, unfailingly (and happily) faithful in my relationship.

Confession: I smoke, and resolving to quit would be the very best resolution. But I know I won’t, at least not now, so why kid myself? So then…what else? Eat healthy? Exercise more? Be more charitable, kinder to strangers, start going to church?

I don’t do resolutions, but I do have an agenda for 2020.  Not so different than my 2019 agenda, with some tweaks to my writing endeavors: Table The Stiletto Gumshoe’s sequel temporarily, concluding it’s presumptuous to work on the second book of a planned series when the first hasn’t even been sold, much less agented yet. But the agenda includes a refusal to lose heart while continuing the humbling (or soul-crushing) querying process. It’s not rejections that sting. Those are fairly few and, often enough, come with genuinely encouraging remarks. It’s the non-responses that bruise some, and it seems they’ve become the industry norm. But the agenda’s full with short fiction projects for The Stiletto Gumshoe and other things, coupled with a renewed zeal to pay more attention to short fiction markets, contests and competitions, anemic or non-existent compensation aside. Keeping up with all that while aiming for some better balance of ‘real’ writing time and lazy-ass blog-hobbying time is enough of an agenda for my 2020. So, here’s hoping for a happy and productive 2020, for me and all of you!

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