First sharing some good news, Small Crimes this week received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, with the comment, “Zeltserman's breakthrough third crime novel deserves comparison with the best of James Ellroy.” Very flattering, and best of all, the review’s getting movie studios to start calling my publisher.
This week my 'lessons learned from the trenches' is about Small Crimes, which was the first novel I started after I began writing again in 2002. For Small Crimes I wanted to write a modern noir novel dealing with the theme of failed redemption. Part of the inspiration came from a newspaper article I read while out in Colorado about this very corrupt Sheriff’s office in Denver during the 60s, and I used that idea to build the web of graft and corruption in my fictional Bradley, Vermont. When I was done with the book I had something that I was excited about, and something that my agent at the time was also equally excited about. Several editors tried to bring it to their boards, but they couldn’t get it though. In one case it was just bad timing—the editor had just bought another dark crime novel, and he couldn’t buy Small Crimes because it was decided he had too much dark material on his list already. It ended up taking three years to sell Small Crimes, but it all worked out for the best; Serpent’s Tail is an outstanding publisher, and probably the best home any dark crime novel could end up in, and I’ll write in a future “Lessons learned in the Trenches” how that came about. The rejections I received for Small Crimes, while painful were also probably for the best, they spurred me on to try to write better books, my attitude being along the lines of ‘fuck you, this one’s not good enough? Let’s see you fuckers reject this next one’, and this anger helped fuel my writing of Pariah, which is by far my best book.
I think one of the most important skills for a writer is to be able to honestly evaluate your own writing—to know when something works and when it doesn’t. Everyone needs outside feedback, but that instinctive feel for your own work is critical. While you need to be open to suggestions and feedback, you need to know in your gut whether this feedback makes sense or not. Early after writing Small Crimes I sent it directly to an editor who was building a new crime fiction line, and he ended up sending me back 3 pages of notes detailing all the problems he saw with it. I looked over these notes and at a gut level I knew I would destroy my book if I took these seriously. This wasn’t a matter of me being stubborn—I’d made major changes in both Fast Lane and Bad Thoughts based on feedback I’d gotten in the past from editors and agents, but I knew these changes made sense and would strengthen these books. It’s so important for a beginning writer to be able to separate good advice from bad, and it’s so easy for doubt to work it’s way when you’re trying to break into publishing. Not all advice is good advice, or even well-intentioned, and you can really screw yourself up if you start losing confidence. On the other hand, as bad as this advice from this editor was, I later attended a two-week writer’s workshop where I submitted the first chapter of Small Crimes, and got some invaluable feedback from other writers there, and especially from Sterling Watson who ran the workshop and was kind enough to meet with me early one morning to discuss my book. Other noir writers read an early draft of Small Crimes, and dug the "in your face" uncompromising noir vision of it, but these were writers who love noir, and what I realized from the writers at the workshop was I needed to soften this noir vision—or at least make it initially appear that way, so the book would appeal to a broader audience. While I think Serpent’s Tail would’ve bought the book in it’s earlier form, my editor was glad to see the changes I made based on this workshop.