Dark and, at times, amusing fiction from award-winning author Dave Zeltserman

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Over at Ed Gorman's blog

I'd like to thank Ed for profiling me on his blog, as well as reprinting a good chunk of our interview that we did for Mystery Scene, and especially for sharing his thoughts on the second book of my Serpent's Tail "man out of prison" series, Pariah, which is being published next month in the UK (probably in the US next June).

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wishing all a happy holiday season, and a healthy and prosperous New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2008

A nice Hanukkah gift

The Boston Globe reviews Small Crimes:

"Small Crimes" is a strong piece of work, lean and spare, but muscular where a noir novel should be, with a strong central character whom we alternately admire and despise.

Read the whole review here.

Best part of being reviewed by the Globe, my parents who live in Brookline and have been reading the Globe for probably over 50 years, now get to brag to all their friends about it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

End of the road for Fast Lane

Fast Lane is a book I have a lot of affection for, and given emails I've received over the years from members of the hardboiled/noir reading group, Rara Avis, it's a book that hardboiled and noir fans really dig also. This was not only the first book I ever wrote, but it was also the first piece of fiction I ever wrote that I intended for publication, and in some ways its also one of my more ambitious books with it being both psychotic noir and hardboiled PI deconstruction, while also being thematically about the corrosive effects of child abuse as its passed from one generation to the next. While the writing at times is kind of rough, it's also very high energy and it fits the book. Given all that, I've decided to take it out of print, and purchasing of new copies should be turned off by middle of January.

I have no qualms with the publisher, Point Blank Press. They are what they are--a small POD house that has very limited distribution and almost no marketing, but my hope is to someday be able to find a home for Fast Lane--either in its current form, or maybe as a graphic novel--where it can end up better marketed and distributed. With Small Crimes selling as fast as Serpent's Tail is able to print and ship copies here, and with Pariah coming out soon---which is the book that both myself, my publisher and editor at Serpent's Tail are really excited about, I think it's worth taking the chance. I hope it happens, 'cause I have little doubt that given the right home, Fast Lane would find its audience.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

More Small Crimes on the web

Poisoned Pen Bookstore has come up with their best of 2008 lists, and I was happy to see Patrick Milliken, who is their resident hardboiled/noir aficionado, as well as the editor for the upcoming Phoenix Noir (Akashic Books), included Small Crimes in his list.

C.T. Henry over at his Mystery Bookshelf includes Small Crimes in his Holiday Gift Guide, as well saying some good stuff about it:

"The writing is taut, and Zeltserman keeps you guessing in this excellently crafted thriller. While Joe tries to go straight, circumstances always seem to work against him. You keep asking yourself: How’s Joe going to get out of this one? The twists and turns of the novel are very entertaining, and the ending is pitch perfect. Highly Recommended!"

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My name wrong again

BookBitch probably has the most creative misspelling of my name that I've seen yet (Zeletserman), but they're highly recommending Small Crimes in their review, so all's good. More on the web, former Chicago Tribune book reviewer, Dick Adler, who gets my name right, has some nice things to say about Small Crimes over at his blog, The Knowledgeable Blogger, including: "Great plot twists, a family straight from hell, lots of sharp and often hilarious writing. Who could ask for anything more?" Also, Steven Sill over at I Love A Mystery feels Small Crimes is noir at its best. And finally,The South African paper, The Citizen, reviews Small Crimes, and also likes it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Grilled in Mystery Scene

My ribs are still sore from the tattooing Ed Gorman performed with his brass knuckles, but give the guy and his methods credit, he got the truth out of me and it's all there in the pages of the current issue of Mystery Scene Magazine.

Seriously, I owe a huge thanks to Ed Gorman for doing the interview, and to Kate Stine for running it.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

My favorite 2008 Best Book lists so far...

What can I say? It has to be NPR's Top Crime and Mystery Novels of 2008 and The Washington Post's Best Books of 2008, especially their mystery and thriller selections ;)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kate's this Friday

I'll be signing copies of Small Crimes at Kate's Mystery Books annual holiday party this Friday from 6:30 to 7:15, as well a slew of other authors (their own books, not Small Crimes!). This is my 4th Kate's holiday party and they tend to be a lot of fun, kind of like a mini-Bouchercon party, and if you're near Somerville it would be a fun way to spend an hour or two--plus you're only a few blocks from Redbones, which has some of the best barbecue in the area and an amazing beer list.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Joining a DaRK PaRTY

Over the last year or so one of my favorite crime fiction/literary blogs has become DaRK PaRTY ReVIEW--and not just because GFS3 posted a YouTube video of Nancy Sinatra singing "These Boots are Made for Walking" ;). GFS3 recently asked me if I wanted to contibute a monthly column to his DaRK PaRTY, and as a result of that my first "Thoughts from the Shadows" can be found over there today where I tackle the question: Would Jim Thompson be published today. Like to hear people's own thoughts on this question!

Friday, November 21, 2008

only if you're a South Park fan

If you've never watched South Park you won't get this.

Picture Stan and Kyle shouting at AIG, Shearson Lehman, and the rest of these thieves:

"Oh my god. They killed the economy. You bastards!"

Thanks to my good friend, Matt, for sending this.

Forgotten books: He Died with His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

"A gripping study in obsession and absolute, awful evil" Sunday Times

It’s hard to call Derek Raymond’s factory series books forgotten since the UK publisher, Serpent’s Tail, is reprinting new trade paperback editions. Underappreciated would be a better way to put it, although not by fans of hardboiled and noir literature who discover these gems. The first of the factory series books “He Died with His Eyes Open” was written in 1984. All these books feature a nameless Detective Sergeant from the Department of Unexplained Deaths. These books are grim stuff; meditations on death and dying and obsession, but they also sparkle with brilliant writing and pitch black humor.

“He Died with His Eyes Open” has our nameless detective investigating the extremely brutal death of a middle-aged alcoholic man. The victim had left behind cassette tapes chronicling his life, and as our Detective listens to these tapes, he grows to admire and like this gentle and brilliant and tormented man, and equally grow to detest the villainous sorts who were in his life. It doesn't take long before it becomes personal for him, and he's crossing a line he shouldn't be crossing.

Derek Raymond was the pseudonym for the English author Robin Cook who died in 1994. From his choice of his pseudonym, as well as his literary and at times wise-cracking style, he was clearly influenced by Raymond Chandler. Whether he surpasses his mentor with these great factory series books is up to each fan of hardboiled fiction to decide. But if you are a fan of the genre, these books are must reads.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Making NPR's list for best crime and mystery novels for 2008

This is all very surreal. As of last week I was mostly flying under the radar with Small Crimes. I had gotten some great reviews in the London papers and trades, as well as some very enthusiastic reviews on line with the incredibly generous Ed Gorman leading the charge, but outside of an early review from The Lansing State Journal, it looked like that the US papers were going to ignore the book. Then late last week stuff started to happen: Small Crimes made IMBA's bestseller list, Sunday it received a rave review in the Washington Post, written by Maureen Corrigan, and now this.

There's so much luck involved in this business. There are so many books out there, and most authors are stuck with the same dilemma, how do you get your book noticed, and in today's world, even reviewed? I remember reading over the summer how a book that had sold I think less than a hundred copies was picked up by Richard + Judy's book club, which meant it was now going to sell over a couple of hundred thousand copies. Earlier on my blog I wrote how a book needs a champion to push it and the author to the next level, and having that happen is just such a random event. How many Richard+Judy's, Oprah's, and possibly in my case, Maureen Corrigan's, are there out there? I'm not exactly sure what this means having both the Post review and making the NPR list other than my book is being taken more seriously today than it was a week ago and that more people are now aware of it. But it is an exciting time now.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Washington Post on Small Crimes: "a piece of crime noir genius"

"The plot of Small Crimes is a thing of beauty: spare but ingeniously twisted and imbued with a glossy coating of black humor. Zeltserman takes up all the familiar tropes of the formula -- femmes fatales, frighteningly dysfunctional families, self-destructive drives and the death grip of the past -- and shows how infinite are the combinations that can still be played on them. " Maureen Corrigan, Washington Post

read the whole review here

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Small Crimes an IMBA Bestseller!!!

Yeah, this post title deserves a few exclamation marks. While Small Crimes is tied with 8 other books for 6th place for the Independent Mystery Booksellers Associations October bestsellers list for trade paperbacks, it still made the list right here!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Back from Philly

Arrived back from Philly late last night. Nice city with maybe the most impressive City Hall I've ever seen, good restaurants, some very nice people--even if they did want to rub in their Phillies World Series win over the Red Sox ALCS elimination. Ff you're in the area, I'd recommend checking out Robins Bookstore on 13th Street near Walnut--Larry Robins who owns it is a good guy, and he has a terrific independent bookstore. And if you like chocolate you gotta check out Naked Chocolate Cafe at 1317 Walnut Street--they're the only place I've seen in the states that serves that thick European style of hot chocolate, and that stuff is about as good as it gets.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

As my invasion of Philly continues....

I'd like to thanks the good folks over at the Philadephia Metro for making Small Crimes one of their picks of the week, as well as the fine folks over at the Washington Examiner for doing the same a couple of weeks ago.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Small Crimes in Philly

November 9th, 1-3 pm, I'll be at Les Bons Temps (114 S. 12th Street) in Philly, along with Cordelia Frances Biddle (Deception's Daughter) for a crime fiction book club brunch sponsored by Robin's Book Store. Deen Kogan, co-producer of Noircon, will be hosting. If you're in the area, hope you stop by!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

21 Reasons...

In the next couple of weeks I have a major newspaper reviewing Small Crimes, as well as some potential articles if the freelance writers I've been talking to get their articles accepted. With some downtime right now I'm just kind of fooling around and have put together my 21 reasons why you might want to read Small Crimes, because face it, there are a lot of terrific crime novels out there, and I think it's only fair that I make a case why readers should take a chance with mine. From feedback I've been getting from readers I'm pretty confident that if you like hardboiled noir than you're going to like Small Crimes, but still here's my list of 21 reasons--and in putting together these reasons I only pulled quotes from good reviews. Although all reviews so far (at least the ones I've seen) have been good to great, I'm not about to pull a quote out of a bad or mediocre review to mislead anyone. So here's my case for why if you're a fan of crime fiction you might want to indulge in some Small Crimes:

1) From Publisher’s Weekly’s starred review: "Zeltserman's breakthrough third crime novel deserves comparison with the best of James Ellroy"

2) Booklist also has good stuff to say about Small Crimes: "Small Crimes has plenty of crime, but obsession, hubris, and evil, pure and impure, are at the heart of this vivid noir."

3) Maybe you might want to find out why Ed Gorman thinks Small Crimes is one of the finest dark suspense novels he’s read in the past few years.

4) Same with why Bruce Grossman from Bookgasm feels that Small Crimes is a surefire contender for book of the year.

5) As does why Nathan Cain (who’s blog 'Independent Crime' reviewed Small Crimes) agrees with Bruce.

6) And then there’s the ending, the one which Bill Crider writes is both “stunning and surprising”.

7) Laura Wilson in her review for the Guardian, also calling it a "surprisingly bold ending"

8) David Connett for the Sunday Express agrees also, saying, “Denton is one of the best realised characters I have read in this genre, and the powerfully noir-ish, uncompromising plot, which truly keeps one guessing from page to page, culminates with a genuinely astonishing finale."

9) Thuglit also agrees, making Small Crimes one of their picks, and saying, “...the book ends with one of my favorite final lines in the history of the written word. But don’t skip to it, ya lazy bastid.”

10) Patrick Milliken from Poisoned Pen Bookstore agrees with Thuglit's choice, making Small Crimes one of his hardboiled picks.

11) Then there’s Marcel Berlins at the London Times saying, "Small Crimes is the kind of grim noir novel they used to write in the Thirties and Forties. There are no good guys, only men who are mean, vicious, tough, corrupt and amoral. Action is frenzied and bloody, women easy but vulnerable, dialogue curt and the plot not necessarily convincing. David Zeltserman serves up the formula with enthusiasm and some fine writing.”

12) And Cath Staincliffe over at Tangled Web saying, "The characterisation and mental torment are reminiscent of the insightful psychological thrillers of Jim Thompson. Stunning stuff."

13) And Crimespree Magazine calling Small Crimes a dark masterpiece.

14) And Barry Forshaw over at CrimeTime saying, “This loamy smorgasboard of salvation and revenge has both a violent and comic edge, marking Zeltserman as a name to watch."

15) And Damien Seaman at Shots Magazine saying about Small Crimes, "Not so much a highway to hell as a full-on rollercoaster ride."

16) And Ray Walsh in the Lansing State Journal saying, “Zeltserman masterfully controls the action, offering dark noir fiction in the best Jim Thompson tradition. This is ideal for lovers of tense suspense and violent action.”

17) And then there’s Dark Party Review saying, “That’s the secret to Zeltserman’s fascinating novel about small town corruption and the consequences that follow. Unlike many crime writers today addicted to glamorous, far-fetched shoot-outs, outrageously high-concept plots, and the superhero-like-antics of protagonists, Zeltserman mines the ordinary for the extraordinary...."

18) And Barnes and Noble on their Mystery & Crime page calling Small Crimes, "ultra-noir, funny, and shocking by turns"

19) And then there’s Amazon.com right now discounting new copies to $10.17

20) Small Crimes is being published by Serpent's Tail, one of the world's best independent publishers of crime fiction. I mean, come on, when has Serpent's Tail ever let you down?

21) And finally, Pariah is out in the UK this January, and if Whitey Bulger ends up reading it, there may not be too many more books coming from me…

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Small Crimes book launch party

The US book launch party for Small Crimes is going to be held Oct. 21st at Redbones in Somerville, MA from 5:30-7. For anyone unfamiliar with Redbones it has probably the best barbecued food in the Boston area, and free appetizers will be on hand. I hope people in the area will be able to make it, and I'll look forward to seeing you all there.

More information about Redbones and the event can be found by clicking here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Small Crimes joining a Dark Party

GFS3 reviews Small Crimes over at the always interesting and thought-provoking DaRK PaRTY ReVIEW:

"...My conversation with Cormier came to mind as I was reading Dave Zeltserman’s crime novel “Small Crimes.” You couldn’t find two more disparate writers, but both novelists understand the power of a smaller stage. Small stories can produce big results and unveil universal truths.

That’s the secret to Zeltserman’s fascinating novel about small town corruption and the consequences that follow. Unlike many crime writers today addicted to glamorous, far-fetched shoot-outs, outrageously high-concept plots, and the superhero-like-antics of protagonists, Zeltserman mines the ordinary for the extraordinary...."

You can read the whole review here (and reading it is a hell of a lot less painful today than checking the stock market indices!)

Crimespree Magazine also reviews Small Crimes, and has good things to say also, calling Small Crimes a dark masterpiece. You can read the review here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

How books break through

I think this is something every writer struggles over. You might have written a book that's gotten great reviews by the trades, websites, and smaller newspapers, but how do you get from there to bestseller? There's no way around it, books sell because of how they're positioned and promoted in bookstores--and usually the publishers are paying for that placement and promotion, and reserving that payment for what they're considering their big books. So if you're not part of that, how do you break through?


It really comes down to that. You need to be lucky to have the right person discover your book and support it. More than just support it, but be a champion for it. Whether it's a reviewer at the NY Times or Entertainment Weekly or the right person at a chain bookstore, you need someone like that in your corner for a book to break through. I think that might be happening to me right now. Case in point, my sales rankings right now at bn.com and amazon.com:

Small Crimes sales rank at bn.com: 267
at amazon.cm: 635,923

Why the huge discrepancy? It's not a stunt on my part--I'm not buying copies at bn.com, nor am I asking friends to. It's because someone at bn.com discovered Small Crimes and is giving it prominent exposure on their Mystery & Crime and Thriller pages. On their Mystery & Crime page this is what they had to say:

This month focuses on a writer we'll be hearing a lot more about over the coming years: Dave Zeltserman. His new book, Small Crimes, is just out -- ultra-noir, funny, and shocking by turns. A major new talent continues his crime spree.

BN.com started giving Small Crimes this exposure Thursday and the ranking quickly went from 500,000 to 660. Now it's 267. If amazon.com did the same, I'm sure the sales would follow there also. The reason someone at bn.com had a chance of noticing the book in the first place is that I'm being featured on their crime book club this month--but still, without the right person at bn.com reading Small Crimes and believing in it this wouldn't be happening. This is the luck part of it.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Very cool for Small Crimes

I don't know how long this is going to be up there, but if you go to bn.com, then click on Books, then on Mystery & Crime, will see a nice plug for Small Crimes.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

More Small Crimes

Ray Walsh reviews Small Crimes and Iain Levison's Dog Eat Dog for the Lansing State Journal, and finds both books highly entertaining, with both books having well-developed characters, corkscrew plots and endings that are virtually impossible to predict. About Small Crimes: "a nifty, captivating tale ... Zeltserman masterfully controls the action, offering dark noir fiction in the best Jim Thompson tradition. This is ideal for lovers of tense suspense and violent action." Read the entire review here.

Vince Keenan
has good things to say about Small Crimes.

As does MonstersAndCritics.com ...

And LiteratureChick adding that Small Crimes is a must read.

I also have fun with Marshal Zeringue, coming up with my dream cast for Small Crimes for his "My Book, The Movie" series.

And finally, from the month of October I'll be the guest author over an bn.com's Crime Club.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pariah, an early look

Small Crimes is only a couple of days away from its US release, and Pariah is still 3 and a half months from being released in the UK, but just got Serpent's Tail's brilliant cover for it and wanted to share it.

I can't tell you how excited I am about this book being published--not the least of which because each of the early readers I sent this to were every bit as enthusiastic about it as Ken Bruen and Cortright McMeel are in their shared thoughts for it below. This book may be a little too fierce and unconventional for most publishers, but fortunately there are still publishers out there like Serpent's Tail.

Ken Bruen on Pariah:


Cortright McMeel on Pariah:

"Mean like bad whiskey and sophisticated like good scotch, PARIAH is a rare find and a scorching read. This accomplished novel features a great blend of strong narrative voice and a realistic, multi-layered plot that lays bare the dark soul of South Boston's underworld. In Kyle Nevin, his main character, Zeltserman has a dark Celine creation that is as literary as he is noir. To my mind this novel provides the final word on the Southie's demise and does so more artfully than it's predecessors. Brimming with historical anecdote, rife with keen sociological insight, Zeltserman invests his novel with a veracity found mostly in non-fiction. However, this is a novel and a damn entertaining one, one that reminds us that reading the book truly is more informing and riveting than seeing the movie."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

T minus 3

Three days (Oct. 1st) until Small Crimes is out in the US. I wrote Small Crimes in 2003, sold it to Serpent's Tail early in 2006 and now over 2 1/2 years later it will finally be available here. I've been looking forward to this for a long time. The book was published in the UK this past March, and so far the reviews from the London papers, UK web magazines, trades and web reviewers have all been good to exceptional, with some of the reviewers saying amazingly enthusiastic things about Small Crimes. I've also been hearing some really good things from mystery and independent bookstores that have so far read the book.

Serpent's Tail is a great publisher for Small Crimes, and I'm thrilled to be joining an amazing list of authors that they publish, but there are things that are tough being a US author published by a UK house. First, that 6 months additional wait while the book is first put out in the UK, made even more frustrating by being an ocean away and unable to do author events over there. Also, by the time the book is sent to the trades here, it's no longer an ARC but a final product, so at least for this printing we can't put on the cover "Deserves comparison with the best of James Ellroy, starred review, Publisher's Weekly" as we'd be able to do if this was a US publisher. Of course, there are also big advantages to being published by a UK house, namely, I'm being published also in the UK by a prestigious house that's well respected by readers and the London papers, which means my book's already coming over here with strong reviews from the London Times, Guardian and Sunday Express. Another big advantage, although this is more specifically related to Serpent's Tail, is that they have kind of a more old-fashioned way of looking at things in that they believe in quality more than "perceived commercial viability" and are willing to give books they publish the time to develop a readership.

Anyway, while I had to wait for what seemed like forever for this book, my next one, Pariah, will be hot on it's tail, and out in the UK this January.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Boston Globe article: Connolly 'just another member' of Bulger's gang

My South Boston mob book, Pariah, is still 4 months away from being released in the UK by Serpent's Tail, but in anticipation of that I'm going to start posting occasional articles here about Bulger and the mob. From today's Boston Globe, an article about ex-FBI agent John Connolly's ongoing murder trial for tipping Bulger off about an informant:


Friday, September 12, 2008

Forgotten books: Dead City by Shane Stevens

Originally published in '73 by Holt. the book was reprinted in '92 by Carroll & Graf, probably because Stephen King mentioned it in the afterword of his '89 The Dark Half, and this reprint carries the front cover blurb by King, "One of the finest novels ever written about the dark side of the American dream". In his "The Dark Half" afterword, King also says about Stevens' books, "I recommend them unreservedly...but only readers with strong stomachs and stronger nerves need apply." I haven't read Stevens other books yet, but it certainly applies to Dead City. This is a brutal, extremely violent book that looks at the dirtiest aspects of the mob business, and could've almost been a blueprint for the Sopranos. The book focuses mostly on three members of the Jersey City mob; Joe Zucco, a mob boss, Charlie Flowers, a depressed sort whose career has stalled out due to a failed hit and is mostly now doing strongarm stuff, and Harry Strega, a kid fresh out of the Vietnam war, who is trying to work his way up through Zucco's organization. This book pulls no punches as it shows how there is little loyalty, honor, and decency among these criminals. Anything goes, anything seems to be fair game, and there's a realism that makes you think Stevens must've have had friends in the mob, or at least hung around those who did. The ending is a kick in the face, as cruel an ending as I've come across, and a perfect metaphor for workers struggling for the American dream.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Small Crimes in the Blogosphere

Bruce Grossman over at Bookgasm feels Small Crimes should be a contender for book of the year. Nathan Cain concurs and writes his own review of Small Crimes over at Independent Crime. Earlier this summer Ed Gorman wrote about how he thought Small Crimes was one of the finest dark suspense novels he's read in the past several years. Recently Ed wrote about how Small Crimes is one of the best novels he's read in 2008 so far, as well as saying some nice things about my free short story anthology, Seven.

I'd like to thank Ed, Bruce Grossman and Nathan Cain for taking the time to read Small Crimes and for sharing their thoughts on it. It's extremely gratifying to see that people are enjoying the book and the impact it's having.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Latest members of the Degenerates Club

Thrilled to see Small Crimes join Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum as the latest members of Thuglit's Degenerates Book Club.

And speaking of Thuglit, their latest issue is fucking great, each story a strong one. Yeah, for short crime fiction, they're the best, it's that simple. Two in particular that I want to point out, "Mercy First, First Mercy" by David Harrison is a clever and intriguing view of an insane mind, and Overclocked by Lawrence Clayton is just brilliant, wickedly funny, and had me laughing outloud--and definitely the standout story of the issue, although for the author's sake, I hope it isn't as autobiographical as it sounds.

Anyway, a big thanks to Big Thug, Todd Robinson, for reading Small Crimes and adding it to his club, and even bigger thanks for putting out such a kickass crime fiction zine!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Seven, a crime fiction sampler

In anticipation of the US release of my first Serpent's Tail novel, Small Crimes, I'm making available free a new anthology of my crime fiction. Seven contains stories that originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock, Ellery Queen, Hot Blood, Bullet and Futures, as well as one new original story. These are stories populated by con men, mobsters, and monsters, human or otherwise. To read more about Seven and to download the PDF file for it, click here.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Some fine noirish reading

Over at the new issue of PlotsWithGuns.

Garnett Elliot's The Greatest Generation and Kyle Minor's They Take You are particularly excellent.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Lessons learned from trenches: Part 14

British airlift out of the trenches

As I approach present time, I’m also approaching the end of these ‘lessons from the trenches’, and will be wrapping things up with this one, although if people have enough questions for things I haven’t covered I’ll have a follow up ‘lessons learned’ next week with the questions answered as I best I can. I’m sure as I continue my journey through publishing, I’ll find myself stumbling into more foxholes, and may be adding more ‘lessons learned’ over time.

First, about Serpent’s Tail for those unfamiliar with them. They’re a highly respected publisher, and one of the UK’s premiere publishers of crime fiction. They publish among others, David Peace, Stella Duffy and Cathi Unsworth, and have published books that have won the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Orange Prize in Fiction. They’re really picky as hell at what they select. So how did Small Crimes which was rejected by nearly every large NY house end up with the Serpent’s Tail? Well, mostly luck.

When I started these ‘lessons learned’ I talked about how much luck can play into things, and not just luck, but timing. For a number of years I’ve been a member of the Rara Avis hardboiled/noir discussion group, which is a group of like-minded folks as myself (although there are one or two philistines within the group who are blind to the greatness of Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye!—sad, very sad). One of the members of the group is John Williams, who as well as being an author of crime fiction, is also an editor for Serpent’s Tail, and I asked him off list if he’d be willing to take a look at Small Crimes. Normally I don’t think there would’ve been much chance of it except for the right combination of factors—a number of Rara Avians who had discovered my psycho noir novel, Fast Lane, were saying very nice things about it on the list, and two of Serpent’s Tail’s authors, Vicki Hendricks and Ken Bruen, both had really nice things to say about Small Crimes. John did warn me up front that there wasn’t much chance they would buy it, that they only buy books that they’re completely desperate to publish. So while I thought there was a good chance John would like it, I wasn’t holding out much hope that Serpent’s Tail would buy it, especially since no other publisher yet had been desperate to buy it.

Months passed, a lot of months. I told John ahead of time that I’d be showing Small Crimes to other publishers also, and he was fine with that, and I ended up sending the book to Five Star. The thing with Five Star is they’re a small publisher who basically sells mostly to libraries—their pricing and discount policy doesn’t really allow much else. They’re a professional outfit, a good group of people, but their books are going to sell between 500-1500 copies based on the book’s trade reviews. They ended up accepting Small Crimes, and still no word from Serpent’s Tail. At this point I was leaving it up to my agent at the time to contact Serpent’s Tail, and he was telling me they weren’t returning his emails. I pretty much decided if I sold Small Crimes to Five Star, that was it, I’d get the book in print, and then quit writing for good. It just wasn’t worth it anymore. I pushed things out as long as I could, then signed the contracts and sent them back to Five Star. Three days later John Williams called me to tell me how much he and the publisher loved Small Crimes and that they wanted to publish it. After that I was scrambling to work something out with Five Star.

The next few weeks were tough ones, but fortunately the Five Star folks turned out to be really decent people, and they let me exchange Bad Thoughts for Small Crimes. For a small publisher, they’re about as good as you can find, and they ended up doing a nice job with Bad Thoughts, very thorough and professional with the copy editing, and the book ended up getting good trade reviews with Booklist and Library Journal and the book sold at the upper end of what they were looking for, so it worked out well for all of us. And I got what I’d been fighting for years in the trenches for—a top publisher publishing my books. After selling Serpent’s Tail Small Crimes, I next wrote and sold them my South Boston Irish Mob book, Pariah, as well as Killer, a book I hadn’t written yet at the time—which was another thing I wanted badly to do, have a publisher waiting to buy my next book. About Pariah, it’s by far the best thing I’ve written, and it’s going to catch people’s attention when it’s out next year. Small Crimes was a book that Serpent’s Tail felt deserved to be published, Pariah on the other hand is a book that they’re excited about publishing. To say the book is too fierce for NY to have ever published it is probably a gross understatement. Very thankful to have ended up with a great house like Serpent’s Tail, and very thankful to the people at Five Star for being so decent and letting it happen.

There are benefits for fighting for years to break through. One, you don’t take anything for granted when it happens. Two, that chip on your shoulder, to keep wanting to write better books to show them. Three, building a small backlog of books waiting to sell. Over the next year and a half I’ve got Small Crimes, Pariah, Bad Karma (sequel to Bad Thoughts which I’ve sold to Five Star) and Killer all coming out. Outside of “28 Minutes”, I’ve got three other books sitting and waiting. Once Small Crimes and Pariah are out and they start getting me some attention, I’ll send these other books out, and since all three of them are pretty good—dark, but pretty good, at least as good as Small Crimes, I’m confident they’ll be selling.

It’s been a long fight to get out of the trenches, and I guess the lessons from this week are luck, as well as making your own luck, patience, and perseverance. Several times over the years I almost failed that lesson in perseverance, and I think that could be the one thing that’s the toughest for writers to overcome, because it can be so damn easy to just say fuck it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Murdaland and the end of stories

I know it’s old news now about Murdaland having to shut down operations, and while it wasn’t unexpected due to how tough it is to get a literary magazine off the ground and running profitably, it’s still sad to see such a well-intentioned crime fiction magazine fail, and I salute the staff at Murdaland for their efforts.

One of the things that struck me about all this is a comment Hard Case Crime publisher, Charles Ardai made in a discussion on Sarah Weinman’s blog about Murdaland's demise:

“To a first approximation, people don't read short stories anymore. This is why magazines of short stories are universally seeing their circulation figures dwindle. I started my career at EQMM and AHMM and care enormously about and for them -- they're an important part of our history and it would be a tragedy if they went away. But I'm afraid they will, just because the generation of people who read short stories for pleasure is going away.”

I don’t know how true this is, I’m sure Charles Ardai has some insight into this, and I’m sure the editors of these magazines and others could provide more insight. I can’t tell you what an understatement Charles’s statement is about what a loss it would be if EQMM and AHMM went away, both for crime fiction readers and writers. As a kid I grew up reading both magazines, as well as Alfred Hitchcock short story collections, and as a crime fiction writer, these are the magazines we aspire to be published in. As publisher of Hardluck Stories, I can tell you that these are the two magazines that far and away set the benchmark for quality in short crime fiction. It’s chic these days for some writers to dismiss these magazines as being staid or too cozy (these comments usually made by people who haven’t bothered reading either of these magazines), and nothing could be further from the truth. Both of these magazines publish a wide-range of stories, and some can be very dark, although usually in subtle and clever ways. My story Closing Time which AHMM published, is as dark as anything ever published on Hardluck. With the classic reprints, foreign language translations, return of Black Mask, writers like Tom Piccirilli, Bill Pronzini and Loren Estleman, there’s plenty of darkness in these pages, and a tremendous amount of talent.

So if short story readers are dwindling, what’s the reason? It’s certainly not the quality, the stories from AHMM, EQMM, as well as the guerrilla pulp magazine, Out of the Gutter, and crime fiction web-zine extraordinaire, Thuglit, have never been better. Here are my theories:

1) Younger readers are choosing graphic novels over short fiction. When I was a kid I read comic books (actually had a pretty good collection with Spiderman #4-#13, among others) and there were a few good more adult magazines, like Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, but these were nothing like the graphic novels available today. The ones today are more literate, more adult, and much better quality, and I think they’re causing a lot of young readers to bypass short stories—instead making the jump more directly to novels.

2) The overwhelming amount of reading material available. As well as this being a great period for new crime fiction, readers today have this amazing backlog of 80 years or so of great crime fiction available, and with POD and other publishing enterprises, more and more of it readily available.

So are things really this bleak for short crime fiction? I don’t know, I hope not. There’s a beauty and succinctness to short stories, and I challenge any crime fiction reader to read Jim Thompson’s “Forever After” or Dashiell Hammett’s “The Gutting of Couffignal”, and not see these as gems to be treasured. The loss would be equally immeasurable to writers—short stories provide a great training ground, as well as a challenging and rewarding form. So how to get more people reading? No idea.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Some early Small Crimes

While Small Crimes is scheduled for an October 1st release, copies are now in stock and available for purchase at both amazon.com and bn.com.

A few reasons why you might want to consider getting an early copy of Small Crimes (other than it's being discounted now at Amazon from $14.95 to $10.17):

Starred review, Publisher's Weekly, "Zeltserman's breakthrough third crime novel deserves comparison with the best of James Ellroy"

Ed Gorman, "Small Crimes is one of the finest dark suspense novels I've read in the past few years."

David Connett, Sunday Express, "Denton is one of the best realised characters I have read in this genre, and the powerfully noir-ish, uncompromising plot, which truly keeps one guessing from page to page, culminates with a genuinely astonishing finale."

Thomas Gaughan, Booklist, "Small Crimes has plenty of crime, but obsession, hubris, and evil, pure and impure, are at the heart of this vivid noir."

Barry Forshaw, Crime Time, "This loamy smorgasboard of salvation and revenge has both a violent and comic edge, marking Zeltserman as a name to watch."

Cath Staincliffe, Tangled Web, "Stunning stuff."

Ken Bruen, "Classic noir, dark, funny, shocking and absolutely no compromise. The last 20 pages are truly a kick in the face. Pure magic of the blackest kind.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lessons learned from trenches: Part 13

Almost Hollywood

With the reaction that my short story More Than A Scam received, I thought I discovered the secret to writing a hit, which is work into your crime story something very topical that is on everyone’s mind. I tried that with the next book I wrote after Small Crimes, which was a bank heist book called Outsourced. The basic premise is a group of software engineers made obsolete due to outsourcing, in desperation try to rob a bank in a very clever manner and, as with most of my books, things not working out exactly as plan. Mixed into all this was commentary about outsourcing, as well as a fair amount of research on the subject by my part. Outsourced probably had more editors take this book to their editorial boards than any other book I’ve written, but here’s where I got burnt by wrapping this bank heist book up with a topical subject—in all cases these boards rejected the book out of worry that the subject wouldn’t be as topical by the time the book was published. It was all very frustrating, especially since at this time Small Crimes was still unsold. Just as I was getting ready to pack it all in and have a nice little bonfire with my unsold manuscripts, my agent at the time called. One of the big agents in Hollywood, this guy who has gotten several big hits made, loved Outsourced and wanted to take it on. This agent hooked a producer to the project and they pitched to the studios as a cable series, and for a while things were looking promising but in the end it fizzled out. But this bought me the necessary time to sell Small Crimes and to keep writing. Just when I thought the Outsourced film project was dead, this film agent called me last year (well, actually his secretary called me and then kept me on the line waiting for the agent. all kind of 60ish TV sitcom-type stuff) with news that the project was back on and this time as a feature film. The producer was still onboard, and we had just lined up a very hot screenwriting teams. One of the reasons this team was so hot was they just sold a film on spec to Russell Crowe for a lot of money, and that ended up being the downfall for this revival of Outsourced. Just as things were getting underway, this team had to drop out to fly to Australia to make changes for Crowe for the film they just sold him.

So where are things now? I knew I had a good bank heist novel buried in between the outsourcing stuff, and I knew the outsourcing stuff would ultimately always scare away any publisher, so I stripped that out of the novel and sped up the pacing and now have what I think is a very strong and muscular bank heist novel. My editor at Serpent’s Tail read this new version, which I call 28 Minutes, and liked this quite a bit and is recommending it to the publisher as long as I’m okay with a January 2011 publishing date, which is the earliest they can do since I have books coming out with them this year, 2009 and 2010, and they won’t do more than one book a year from an author. As far as my film agent is concerned, he can’t do anything again with it until I get a publishing deal, but once that happens, he feels he can get a film project for it underway. So with some luck 28 Minutes will at some point be coming to both bookstores and theatres everywhere. But again, this demonstrates how important patience is for a writer, and also being flexible and listening to what people are saying between the lines and making the changes you need to make.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lessons learned from trenches: Part 12

Small Crimes

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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Booklist reports on Small Crimes

"Small Crimes has plenty of crime, but obsession, hubris, and evil, pure and impure, are at the heart of this vivid noir." — Thomas Gaughan, Booklist

Monday, August 11, 2008

Adrenaline on CrimeWav

Adrenaline is now available as a free podcast on Seth Harwood's cool crime fiction podcast site, CrimeWav. Adrenaline was originally published in Out of the Gutter #3, and Rod Lott over at Bookgasm had the following to say about the story when he was reviewing the magazine:

"Another great one is “Adrenaline” by Dave Zeltserman. His antihero narrator – formerly of Special Forces – refuses to tell his gang the whereabouts of $800,000 he’s absconded with, despite having his fingernails removed via pliers and other increasingly painful atrocities. He uses his knowledge of the cash as a bargaining chip to pit the guys against one another, and the reveal at the end is terrific."

This is a violent pulp story, as you can probably tell from Rod's review, but it's one I think fans of pulp crime fiction will like.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The mesmer

When Laurie Pzena was playing around with different images for my web-site, she came up with this evil version of me, which gave me a good laugh. This could make a good heavy metal album cover, or for my extemely violent crime story, Adrenaline, which is going to be up next week on Seth Harwood's very cool new crime fiction podcast site, CrimeWav.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

about time I did this

With the help of my wife's cousin, talented artist and good friend, Laurie Pzena, I've finally put together my author's web-site at www.davezeltserman.com. Right now this is sharing the same web-site as Hardluck Stories, but by clicking on the Hardluck Stories logo, people can get to the last issue and archives. On Oct. 1st, I'll be removing all Hardluck Stories pages at that time.

Anyway, this probably explains why I've been slipping on my lessons learned from the trenches, but expect a new one next Wednesday.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The kind of books I like

Click here to read my reviews of Sleeping Dogs by Ed Gorman, Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald Westlake, Dirty Money by Richard Stark (Westlake) and Zero Cool by John Lange (Michael Crichton).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lessons learned from trenches: Part 11

Writing Again

In 2002 I also started writing again, and the first thing I worked on after this 5-year break was a short crime story, More Than a Scam. This could be the first and only Nigerian-email scam story, and the way it came about was after getting yet another scam email, I posted on a yahoo hardboiled writers group that it would be an interesting topic for people in the group to write stories about. No one took me up on that, so I decided to do it. At first I was planning to do the same as my fictional writer in the story---trade emails with these scam artist and write up the exchange as a story. Instead, I went a different direction and wrote a noirish crime story with my protagonist having his own ulterior motives for participating in this scam. I knew it was a good story when I was done, and it ended up making honorable mention in the 2003 Best American Mystery Stories anthology, with Otto Penzler mentioning to my agent at the time that he was disappointed the story wasn’t selected by his editor for that volume as one of the top 20.

By nature I’m driven to create things. That’s the reason I spent over 20 years as a software developer, why I started Hardluck Stories, and why I write. Back in 2002 one of the things I tried creating was a Yahoo group to match short crime fiction to publications. The way this would work is writers would post a one-paragraph description of the story they were trying to sell, as well as a bio, and editors would contact them off-list. I think I called this group the Short Mystery Fiction Warehouse. It seemed like a good idea, but none of the paying magazines participated, only non-paying web-zines. Some stories ended up being placed through this, but it didn’t work out the way I had hoped and after a short time I shut it down. At the time I knew More Than a Scam would have a good shot with both AHMM and EQMM, two magazines I wanted to break in to, but I wanted to support this fiction warehouse concept so I made the story available through it, and a web-zine Mysterical-E ended up asking for it. The people I dealt with at Mysterical-E were professional and treated my story well, but it was a mistake not trying for the higher markets first. These days if a web-zine or low-paying market that I respect asks me for a story, I’ll provide one to help support them, but whenever you have a story that’s a good fit for a top market, always submit to them first. Always.

With the reaction More Than a Scam was receiving I thought I hit upon a formula for success—choose a topical theme. Well, maybe for short stories, but it doesn’t quite work out well for novels, as I’ll be discussing in a future lessons from the trenches.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

taking this week off

I sent off my third book (Killer) to Serpent's Tail yesterday, and am celebrating by taking off today to get a Maine lobster roll up in Kennebunkport, among other things. Lessons learned in the trenches will be back next week. In the meantime, feel free to leave any questions that I can answer about running a web-zine, breaking into publishing with dark crime fiction, or anything else writing-related, and I'll see what I can come up with.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

11,000 gallons of gasoline on fire

This happened a few miles from my home last Saturday.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 10


In the early 90s I was working for Digital Equipment Corporation (once over 130,000 employees, now no longer exists), and during a trip to Palo Alto a friend of mine working for their Western Research Lab showed me a demo of an early Internet browser (xmosaic) when at that point the Wide World Web consisted of six demo web sites. I’d like to say that I thought of then someday starting a crime fiction web-site, but my thoughts were more business oriented—I considered at that time buying a Cisco router, a workstation, and starting what would’ve been one of the first ISPs and dedicating it to field service personnel, something that would allow them to access technical manuals anywhere they had access to the Internet. If I had done that I’d be very wealthy right now, but I chickened out. But a few years later as the web became more popular I started thinking of building a crime fiction web-site, and in 2002 I started Hardluck Stories. The name originated from my novel, Fast Lane, where early on I have a street pimp named Rude complaining to celebrity detective, Johnny Lane, about his newspaper column which details his PI exploits:

“Maybe I should talk to your editor. If he’s going to publish crap like ‘Fast Lane’, maybe he’d be interested in something good. Something real. The Rude Streets, stories of the Hardluck.”

Originally Hardluck was a site to promote hardboiled and noir books. Each book on the site had links to an author-written essay about the book—why the writer wrote it, what inspired it, etc., and a short story by the author. This concept would allow readers to discover new writers by reading these essays and short stories. I had a dozen or so authors participating in this, but it didn’t take off the way I had hoped, and eventually the site mutated to a quarterly hardboiled/noir fiction web-zine whose six-year run has just ended. My reasons for starting Hardluck were varied—it was partly to help me promote my self-published book, partly to give myself a creative outlet since I wasn’t having much luck at that time finding a publisher for my books, and partly to help out newer writers like myself. What differentiated Hardluck from the other web-zines and publications, at least at that time, was that I was going to be using a different guest editor for each issue. I had several reasons I wanted to do this: 1) so that the web-zine wouldn’t become cliquish, which I was noticing with some of the crime fiction web-zines back then—I wanted to make sure mine would be fair and not just me publishing friends 2) I wanted to keep the web-zine fresh and introduce ideas that I might not have thought of myself 3) I had gotten to know Vicki Hendricks through her guest-editing an issue of PlotsWithGuns and picking one of my stories, and I wanted to create the same type of situation for other guest editors and newer writers. I think it was due to this constant injection of new ideas from my guest editors and fairness in selecting submissions that caused Hardluck to increasingly get better submissions, to where in my opinion Hardluck was consistently putting out one of the highest quality short crime collections I’ve seen either on the web or in print.

In some ways starting Hardluck contributed to my first book escaping the stench of self-publishing and ending up with Point Blank Press. In a lot of ways this is one of those space-time continuum thingies that they’d have on Star Trek and other sci-fi shows. While I was doing this I got to know another frustrated noir writer—Allan Guthrie, and I ended up publishing his first short story, as well as the two of us showing each other our unsold novels and other works and trading ideas about them. That first publication of Al’s story triggered others, and the next thing I knew he was starting up what became Point Blank Press with JT Lindroos, and the first book Al commissioned was In His Shadow, which wisely had it’s name changed to Fast Lane. So I published Al’s first story and he published my first book—while I had sold the Italian rights to In His Shadow first to Meridiano Zero, Point Blank beat them to the punch by publishing their version several months before the Italian version was out.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 9


In 2001 the computer networking startup I was working at was bought by Lucent Corporation, and it looked like I was going to make a lot of money. It didn’t happen—by the time we could sell our options Lucent stock had tanked and I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to buy call options to lock in my gains, but the experience did make me think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and it came back to writing. I had two books, In His Shadow (Fast Lane) and Bad Thoughts stored away, both of which I thought could be published. Around this time iUniverse and MWA had set up an arrangement where MWA members could have there books self-published free with iUniverse under their Mystery and Suspense Press imprint. I had convinced myself that the publishing world was a private club closed to me, that it was pointless sending my books out again, but if I sacrificed one of my books to self-publishing, I’d be able to get enough positive blurbs and comments on it that I would be able to find interest for my other book. This was wrong thinking on my part—once again the publishing world had changed from ’97 to ’01. There were more legitimate small presses I could’ve considered, plus some excellent UK houses like Serpent’s Tail and No Exit Press which I had never tried, as well as some of the NY houses being more open to darker material than they were a few years earlier. I decided that of my two books, Bad Thoughts was the better of the two, so I joined MWA as a full member since I was eligible from my New Mystery and Hardboiled sales, and I had In His Shadow self-published with iUniverse under the MWA program. I had no expectation of sales—my sole reason was to use the book as a kind of resume to get Bad Thoughts sold, and while some good things came out of it, it was a mistake. I don’t want this to become a debate over self-publishing, I know with some people it’s pretty much like debating religion. I’m simply going to state my observations after having gone through it, as well as my sentiment that no serious writer should ever take this step, but beyond that I’m not going to enter into any debate over self-publishing. Here are a few general observations before going into more specifics:

Most bookstores obviously won’t sell these books except possibly under consignment basis. The reason for this—outside of the general opinion that most self-published books are crap—because of the no return policy PODs typically have, as well as the low discounting.

Major newspapers will not review self-published books. All you do is open yourself up to frustration trying—I had a reviewer at the Rocky Mountain News who liked In His Shadow and submitted a good review for it, only to have her editor pull it because of their policies on self-published books. The reason major papers won’t review self-published books, outside of the general opinion that they’re all crap—they’re not going to be in bookstores, so why review them?

Most legitimately published writers look at self-published books as crap, as well as most of the industry, and you’re going to be looked at as a joke or pathetic going this route.

A first-time writer only has a chance to be a first-time writer once. The industry treats first-time writers specially—both with reviews, awards and attention, and I can’t think of a bigger waste for a writer than to throw away this opportunity by self-publishing.

I self-published In His Shadow in ’02, and have no complaints with iUniverse—they did everything that they were supposed to, in fact, they even did a little more by getting the book reviewed by Publishers Weekly. Again, I never looked at this book as published, just as a 263-page resume, and I started sending out letters to see if I could get some people to take a look at it, and found a few very generous people in the industry who were willing to—Gary Lovisi, who published my second story, Next Time, in Hardboiled, Bill Crider, who I appeared with in New Mystery #2, and Vicki Hendricks, who selected a noir story of mine when she guest-edited an issue of PlotsWitGuns. All three of them ended up liking the book and writing me very generous blurbs. With those blurbs in hand, I bought a small ad in Mystery Scene, which ended up getting Jeff Gelb contacting me, asking if I could send him a copy, which got me an invite to his Hot Blood 12 anthology, and my first anthology sale. Jeff also ended up recommending the book to Joe Hartlaub at BookReporter.com, where I ended up with a very nice review. I actually ended up with a lot of good reviews on the web and in a couple of small newspapers—as well as a mixed review from PW. All this led to my book being discussed on the Rara Avis hardboiled/noir fiction discussion list, which led to Luca Conti, who was translating for the Italian publishing house, Meridiano Zero, buying a copy, recommending it to his publisher, and me selling the rights to them. So there you have it, that’s how I ended up selling to the Italian rights of my first book before ever selling the English.

This led to more stuff which I’ll talk about in future lessons learned, but it was still a mistake self-publishing, and I would’ve been much better served either finding a small press for In His Shadow or writing more books until I could break into a NY house. In my general observations above, I used the word crap a lot—that is not necessarily my view on self-published books—I’ve been there, I under the frustration and temptation to do it, but you’re kidding yourself if you think that’s not the way most people (authors, editors, reviewers, bookstores) view self-published books. Shortly after I started getting blurbs and reviews for In His Shadow I had someone from iUniverse call me about a program he was trying to start up to get the worthwhile books they print (can’t call it publishing!) into chain bookstores, as well as more attention. He was calling me to let me know that he was trying to get In His Shadow in this new program, and that I should be patient and not try to find a legitimate publisher for it. During our phone call, he mentioned out of the 1000s of books that they print, maybe 100 of them deserved to be published. This alone should tell you how small the odds are on having any self-published book looked at seriously.

With the small buzz I was getting for In His Shadows--over a dozen positive reviews, print ads, blurbs, discussions on Rara Avis, PW Weekly review, how many copies of In His Shadow did I end up selling? Maybe 200. And the book still haunts me like a bad case of herpes--after canceling the contract once I sold it to Point Blank Press in 2003 (published under the new name, Fast Lane), the book still shows up on amazon.com.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 8

Bad Thoughts and private clubs

I was sidetracked yesterday putting out the last issue of Hardluck, and it really is a hell of an issue--12 strong noir/hardboiled stories with terrific illustrations by Jean-Pierre Jacquet. This is as strong a collection of short crime fiction as I've seen over the past two years, and highly recommend people checking it out. Anyway, back to lessons learned...

The agent I was working with back in ’96 gave me the following idea for a book he wanted me to write: a young girl whose parents are killed by a serial killer later grows up to be an FBI agent, and hunts down this same serial killer. I think the movie Silence of the Lambs was out then, and this type of derivative and calculating plot might have done well and probably would’ve been more “commercial” than anything I was going to write, and I know I’m being a bit hypocritical after stating earlier how I wanted an agent who could help guide me on what publishers would want, but I think it needs to be a two-way street, not just an agent dictating to a writer what to write like you're some sort of work horse. Any case, I didn’t want to write this type of book—and I morphed the idea into something I did want to write—something that would be a book I’d want to put my name on, and what I ended up with was a wild and grim noirish thriller that mixed horror and crime, and this became Bad Thoughts. My agent was not happy with this, and after he gave me what I thought was an awful vampire screenplay to novelize, and I tried writing it as something that would actually be good, we parted ways.

At the end of ’92 when I was sending out query letters for In His Shadow, over half the editors responded positively. In ’97 when I started sending out letters for Bad Thoughts (at the time titled, Just Around The Corner) the world had changed. Because of the Internet and PCs becoming more of a commodity, publishers were being flooded with manuscripts (PCs made it too easy for anyone to write 300 pages--it takes much more commitment using a typewriter), and were instituting “agent-only” policies. The same editors who had responded positively to In His Shadow and had invited me to send them my next book were no longer responding to my query for Bad Thoughts. The only editor who asked to see it was from Warner Books. He read the manuscript and wrote me back a nice letter telling me how much he liked the book but that it had a major problem for him. The letter wasn’t asking me to fix the problem and send it back, but I agreed with that he had to say, did revisions to address this, then sent him back a letter telling him how I had addressed his problem and asking if he’d like to see the new version. He did, and after I sent it back, he wrote me how there was yet another problem that would keep him from buying the book. Once again I agreed with what he was saying, made revisions and sent him another letter, and once again he asked me to send him my new version.

While all this was going on, I read a collection of con man stories, and I sent the editor, who was with Dell Books, one of my own con man stories which I thought would’ve fit with her anthology, asking her to consider the story in case she did another anthology. She ended up calling me, telling me how much she loved this story, and how she wanted to use it in a new anthology, but that she could only use Dell Magazine reprints. She further told me she would submit this story to the editors of Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen, and let them know that she needed them to publish it so she could use it. According to her there was no reason why they wouldn’t do so.

So here I am, expecting Bad Thoughts to be bought and a story to appear in both a major magazine and a book anthology. I am actually thinking at this point that I’m finally going to break through. Within three days I first get a letter from the editor at Warner books telling me that he couldn’t get my book accepted, then a letter from one of the editors at AHMM or EQMM (I can’t remember which) saying something to the effect of “as you know so-and-so asked us to publish your story but we’re not going to.”

The story that I had sent was “Money Run”, which ended up being published 10 years later in Ellery Queen after Janet Hutchings became the new editor. Back in ’97 after I received that letter all I could think was that there was a private club which I would never be allowed into, and I gave up writing after those two setbacks, and it would be over 5 years before I would start up again. Whether or not there was private club with the old regime at EQMM and AHMM, I can’t say—it could’ve been office politics, it could’ve been simply the previous editors at those two magazines just didn’t like the story enough to want to publish it. What I do know is I’ve gotten to know Janet Hutchings and Linda Landrigan, the current editors at EQMM and AHMM, having sold both of them several stories, and if there ever was a private club with those magazines, it’s not there now. There’s no doubt in my mind that both Janet and Linda are sincere in honestly evaluating every story that comes in and buying the best stories they can for their magazines. While sometimes in might feel like the publishing world is a private club and the doors are slammed shut on you, the reality is most editors are looking for the best stories and novels they can find—although they all have their own biases and tastes, and “best” might be defined by them as most commercial or other criteria, not necessarily best written. The trick is understanding what editors are looking for, and writing that, or if you’re going to be a stubborn SOB like me, having the patience to find the right editor for your work, and accepting that there are certain publications you’re never going to get into—not because the doors are shut to you, but because what you write doesn’t fit the taste for that particular editor.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Final Hardluck

The last issue of Hardluck is now on line, and this has preempted my Lessons learned from the trenches--expect a new one tomorrow. Phew!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 7

Dusting off In His Shadow

In ’96 while I was writing short stories, I also dusted off In His Shadow with the expectation of revising it and finding an agent for it. In the original version that I wrote, I start the book pretty close to my protagonist’s psychotic breakdown, and one of my friends who had read it suggested I start the book off with my protagonist more as a hero so that readers can initially like him and be shocked at the depths he later falls to. I liked that idea for an additional reason also--it allowed me to make the book even more a deconstruction of the hardboiled PI genre. This new work added 50 pages to the front of the book. Again, this was back in ’96, and I can’t remember which version of MS Windows I was using, but whichever one it was it was buggy as hell, and I wasn’t making backups of my new work. When I was done with those 50 pages, I powered off my system before the operating system had finished shutting down, and I lost my revisions. Those 50 new pages were gone. After sitting there feeling sick to my stomach for a while, I started typing away. There’s no way I’d ever be able to do this today—and I can’t swear that the 50 pages I typed the second time matched exactly what I had done earlier, but I’m pretty sure it did. Anyway, now that I had my new and improved version of In His Shadow I started looking for an agent.

I don’t think the agent search ever gets easy—maybe when you’re a bestselling author, but for most of us I think it’s always tough. Back then I made the mistake that probably most authors make—I jumped at the first agent who showed interest. Getting the right agent is critical, the wrong agent can be deadly to your career—especially a new writer. A good agent will have credibility with editors, the books they send out will be looked at seriously, and they’ll send the books to the right editors at the right houses. A great agent will help guide a writer’s career and let them know when their book isn’t the right one for them to start off with. I read a story recently how when Michael Palmer was looking for an agent for his first effort, the agent he sent it to called him back to tell him how much she liked the writing, but the book wasn’t the right one for him to have published. She ended up inviting him to her office to discuss other book ideas, and helped work one of his ideas into what became his first published (and I think bestselling) book. Christ, I fantasize about having an agent like that!

One more thing about how damaging the wrong agent can be—most good agents won’t touch books (at least by newer writers) that have already been sent out by another agent. It doesn’t matter whether the other agent had sent the books to the wrong people or to the wrong publishers, your book basically becomes dead—or something you have to sell yourself to smaller houses.

Getting back to the agent I jumped at the chance to sign with—he was earnest and sincere, but I think I was his first and only client, and probably had little to no chance of selling In His Shadow (or any other book I might’ve written). I also don’t think this agent stayed with being an agent very long, and had other plans for his life. To be fair, there were probably only a small number of good houses where In His Shadow would’ve been a fit—Serpent’s Tail (yes, my editor, after buying Small Crimes and Pariah read Fast Lane and liked it enough where he might’ve bought it), a few other UK houses, Black Lizard/Vintage Crime and maybe one or two other NY houses, but the book was too dark and too different to fit with the majority of houses. Anyway, In His Shadow went nowhere. But this agent did push me into writing what ended up becoming Bad Thoughts—more about that next week.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sunday Express on Small Crimes

As I wait for the October release in the US for Small Crimes, I keep getting only good reviews in the UK. Here's part of what David Connett has to say in his June 8th review in the Sunday Express:

"Zeltserman creates an intense atmospheric maze for readers to observe Denton's twisting and turning between his rocks and hard places.

Denton is one of the best realised characters I have read in this genre, and the powerfully noir-ish, uncompromising plot, which truly keeps one guessing from page to page, culminates with a genuinely astonishing finale."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 6


In ’96 I started writing again. I had walked away from it for 3 years, but it had gotten too deep in my blood and I had to get back to it. Over the next two years I had a lot of ups and downs writing-wise, mostly downs. For this lesson learned I’ll talk about a small success I had during this period, which was selling my second short story—this time to Hardboiled Magazine. Some of my upcoming lessons learned will focus on close calls, near misses and mistakes that I made during this same period.

When I started up again I decided I needed to get more short stories published, and I started writing them like a demon. In ’96, though, there weren’t that many markets for tough hardboiled crime fiction. Web-zines didn’t exist, so the markets you had for tough crime fiction were a few scattered anthologies, which were mostly invite only, New Mystery and Hardboiled. I was sending Charles Raisch at New Mystery the new crime stories I was writing, and he wrote me back to let me know that they had changed their editorial board, adding 10 new members, and the new stories I were sending in were being voted down 8-10. With that news, I sent my first submission to Hardboiled, and received back an encouraging rejection from the editor, Gary Lovisi—something along the lines of that he liked the story but it wasn’t quite right for him. With that I kept sending him stories and kept getting positives rejections. Eventually I wore Gary down and he accepted my story, Next Time, which was a riff on the Cab Calloway song, Kickin’ The Gong Around. I think I ended up sending him 10 stories before Gary finally bought Next Time, but as long as he was sending back encouraging rejections I was going to keep sending in submissions. ‘Next Time’ ended up being published in issue #22 where I appeared with one of my literary heroes, Harlan Ellison. And what happened to the other stories I wrote which Gary turned down? I stored them away in a drawer and years later sold some of them, one for pretty good money, and gave the rest away to web-zines.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Fast Lane and other Point Blank Books--50% off

The online Shocklines bookstore is shutting down sometime this year, and they're selling off their Pointblank inventory at 50% discount, and according to their web-site, free shipping. So if you ever wondered about "Fast Lane" and why Poisoned Pen bookstore named it one of the best hardboiled books of the year that it came out, or if you just want a wild noir thriller to tide you until the October US release of Small Crimes. here's your chance to get a copy cheap. Just go to:


and use the coupon code 'WILDFIFTY' to get your 50% discount.

And to read more about Fast Lane, click here.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 5

Sending out In His Shadow

After Houghton-Mifflin turned down In His Shadow, I bought a copy of Jeff Herman’s ‘Insider’s Guide to Book Editors, Publisher & Literary Agents’, which was a great guidebook back then. It listed agents in each publishing houses, with the type of books they were looking for, and the same for literary agencies. This was the end of ’92, and it was a completely different world as far how publishing houses dealt with unagented material. Back then the Internet was in its infancy, and because of that PCs were costly and were mostly being bought by hobbyist and software engineers. Writing a book or short story using a typewriter required a far more serious effort than writing on a PC, and publishing houses weren’t yet being flooded with manuscripts. Once the Internet took off and PCs got cheaper—sometime around ’95-’96, all that changed, but back around ’93 when I started sending out query letters to publishers and agencies, what I found was a large number of the editors at the large NY houses that I contacted responded to my query letter and requested my book, maybe 10 in total over the year I spent sending out queries. Not too many agents did—only 2. Both agents ended up telling me the same thing—that they enjoyed my writing and the book, but I needed to write a different book, that I would never sell “In His Shadow” as a first book, that it was too different and too dark for the publishing houses. Over the course of a year, the editors I heard back from told me basically the same thing—that a book with the private eye as a psychotic killer would be too hard to sell, that I needed to write something more conventional.

I should’ve listened to them, but I was too stubborn. At the time, Jim Thompson was making a reemergence, and in my heart I knew In His Shadow was a good book and that noir readers would like it. Also—and I think this is a common problem with a lot of first time writers—writing that first book was hard, the thought of writing a second book without first selling the first book seemed insane. But here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

1) Writing the second book gets easier, and writing the third gets even easier.

2) You only get a chance to be a first-time novelist once, and you have to make the most of it—and that has to be writing a book that a large house can sell. A first novel gets treated differently, there’s more excitement for it, it’s eligible for different awards and reviewers look at it more enthusiastically. But that’s only if your first book is getting into a house that people pay attention to.

So it turns out both the agents and editors I heard from were right, as were my gut feelings. In His Shadow eventually did get published as Fast Lane, and the reaction to it from the readers who found it was what I was expecting—but I would’ve been much better served writing something more conventional that a large house would’ve been able to take on.

Anyway, at the end of 1993 with a large pile of rejection slips for In His Shadow, and having just joined new computer network startup where I was going to be working over 60 hours a week, I quit writing to focus on my career.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

I should've used a pseudonym...

If I was thinking a little more clearly I would've used a pseudonym with my books. The most obvious reason: with a last name starting with Z, my books will be stacked on the bottom shelf of the mystery section, less obvious reason, everyone spells my name wrong--my publishers, reviewers, even friends of mine blogging about my books. I found a mostly good review for Small Crimes on the March 28th London Times review by Marcel Berlins, with my name given as "David Zeltresman" (and damn, I hate 'David', but there's a long and unseemly story behind that).

Anyway, this is part of what Berlins wrote, and given that the only writers I can think of that were writing these types of grim noir novels in the 30s and 40s were James M. Cain, David Goodis and Cornell Woolrich, I'm taking this as a high complement! (also, I corrected the spelling of my name in this quote):

Small Crimes is the kind of grim noir novel they used to write in the Thirties and Forties. There are no good guys, only men who are mean, vicious, tough, corrupt and amoral. Action is frenzied and bloody, women easy but vulnerable, dialogue curt and the plot not necessarily convincing. David Zeltserman serves up the formula with enthusiasm and some fine writing.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Forgotten Books: The Captain by Seymour Shubin

The Captain by Seymour Shubin was nominated for an Edgar for Best Mystery Novel in 1983. Publisher's Weekly had the following to say about it: "A towering novel that builds to a heart-clutching peak and leaves one profoundly affected."

The Captain of the title is former Police Captain Walter Hughes, a seventy-six year old tough no-nonsense retired cop who is now suffering from depression and the beginning of dementia. His kids have put him in a home and he's not happy about it, nor is he happy with the neglect and treatment he's seeing other residents receive. When he gets his hands on a gun, he decides to take justice into his own hands with chilling effect.

This is a superb mix of hardboiled, noir and absurdist humor, and could sit proudly on any bookshelf next to Shubin's 1953 classic noir masterpiece, "Anyone's My Name".

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 4

My first sale

While I was waiting for word from Houghton Miflin I was frequently visiting Spenser’s Mystery Bookstore in downtown Boston, and I got to know the owner pretty well, and he would tell me about publishers I should be looking into, how they supported their books, stuff like that. Early on he told me that Serpent’s Tail was one of his favorite publishers—both with the books they put out and how they supported their writers, and that stuck in my mind. During one of my visits to the store, Andy gave me a flyer for a call for stories for a new crime fiction magazine, New Mystery. What they were looking for were tough hardboiled stories, stuff like “bourbon with a splash, not Maalox on the rocks…”

When I got home later I spent hours typing away in a feverish pace trying to write the type of story they were asking for. This turned out to be A Long Time to Die, 6000 words of pure hardboiled noir. I sent it out, and not too much later I received a call from the editor, Charles Raisch, that he wanted to publish it. Since then I’ve sold stories and novellas to Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen, among other places, and have sold six books, including 3 to Serpent’s Tail, but I’ve never had a bigger high than from that first sale. I think that first sale is something that will always stand out with an author—probably because it’s our first real validation as a writer, the first time we’re told we belong. Anyway, I’ll always hold a soft spot in my heart for Charles and New Mystery.

The story came out in their second issue, and it looked great with a terrific illustration provided by the famous artist, Lucien Freud (grandson of Sigmund Freud), and among the company of some very talented writers, including John Lutz, Paico Taibo II and Bill Crider. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. So there you have it. The first story I sent out I actually sold. Made me think things were about to take off for me. Yeah, well not quite. It was mostly downhill from there, at least until 2003…

Jeremiah Healy once told me the three most important rules for a writer. (1) never give up (2) never give up (3) never give up. There’s a lot of truth to that—at least for most of us, or at least for me it was a lesson I kept having to learn over and over again, as will be evident in future notes.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 3

Now what…

Like every other author who writes their first book, the big question is now what? By the time I had the revisions done it was early 1992, and I had no idea what to do next. It turned that a co-worker of my wife’s had a girlfriend working at Houghton-Mifflin, and she agreed to give it to an associate editor there. The reality, the odds of Houghton-Mifflin publishing this type of crime novel from a first-time writer was slim to none, but what the hell did I know? What I should’ve done instead was research the market and query agents and editors and get involved with the local Boston chapter of the MWA and start networking with authors in the area, but what I did instead was wait nine months to hear back from Hougton-Mifflin and get crushed when they ultimately rejected it. It did go through several editors there, and it was seriously considered, but they decided it would be a tough book for them to sell properly, especially given that I was a first-time writer, and given how different the book was from other crime novels.

Much more on In His Shadow later…

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 2, and some news

Starting my first novel, In His Shadow.

The idea for my first novel came from listening to a PI on a radio show talking about a case of his where an adopted girl hired him to find her biological parents, and how badly it all turned out. That got my mind working on yet another Ross Macdonald imitation—in this one a PI is looking into the murder of a young woman, which would turn out to be related to her hiring a celebrity PI, and this PI’s sloppiness leading to her death. It would have the typical Macdonald theme of exposing the sins of the father. Once I read Thompson’s “Hell of a Woman” and “Swell-Looking Babe”, all that changed. I saw a new way of writing this. Instead of hardboiled PI it was going to be psychotic noir. I was excited, and more than just seeing a new way to write this, I was starting to discover my own voice. At the time I was working for Digital Equipment Corporation (at one time a massive computer company with over 120,000 employees, now defunct), and was stuck on a hellish project that I had to finish before I could move onto a decent one. What made this such a hellish project was that I had to write driver code interfacing with a board developed by a group in Ireland, and the bastards there were so protective of their code that they wouldn’t share it with me, so I was basically having to write code in the dark trial by error style. Something that should’ve taken a week was going to have to take months because of these jerks in Ireland. Starting this novel at this time helped me keep my sanity, but also for the first time I was excited about what I was writing, and for the first time I was writing something that I thought could someday be published.

I wrote this at work during my lunch break, typing away fast and furious. At times my boss would come over and ask me technical questions while I wrote this, and I’d answer him while still typing away. Seven months later I had my draft done. This was 1991, and at this point I bought a PC, copied my document at work to a floppy disk, and started working on revisions.

At work I’d also finally gotten off my hellish project, and was starting my first of many network management projects. I was also moving from building firmware and driver code to writing graphical software using C. In other words, I was having fun again at work. But I was also distracted with thoughts of actually getting a book published.

Now for some news, I heard from Serpent's Tail yesterday that we've received a really good offer for the French rights for Small Crimes from Rivages. I'm not sure yet when they're going to be publishing it over there, but this is exciting. I've been hearing from friends who know about Rivages is that they're a terrific house with maybe the best hardboiled/noir list in the world. Anyway, more about this later.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches

I'm going to be publishing these lessons learned every Wednesday, and it will be a regurgitation of everything I’ve gone through over the last 16 years since I started taking writing seriously. Maybe new writers will learn from my mistakes and get some inspiration from my successes. Everything is going to be laid out there—warts and all. I’m hoping that this ends up being interactive, with people feeling free to leave comments. Who knows, maybe when I’m done with these notes (and there are going to be at least a years worth), I’ll end up with a book that can be useful to new writers.

Finding my voice.

Right off the bat I’ll admit that I was about as unlikely a person to ever end up a writer as you’re going to find. While I always read a lot, and at different times in my life would be drawn to writing fiction, through school my focus was math and my passion was computer programming. In college I was an engineering student with an Applied Math and Computer Science major, and the path was laid out pretty early for me to go into software development. I loved that life and was damn good at it—leading complex projects very early in my career. So writing always seemed like a lark, something that would never be real. How many software engineers do you find writing crime fiction?

Early on I was a big fan of Ross MacDonald, and my first serious attempt to write a crime story was a really bad imitation of MacDonald. To say it was awful is doing a disservice to the word “awful”. Years later I rewrote this mess of a story as “The Dover Affair”, which was later published on Thrilling Detective, as a challenge to see if I could turn this story into something halfway decent. But at least early on I had what’s probably the most critical skill that a writer needs—honestly being able to evaluate your own work. I knew what I wrote sucked, and I never bothered sending it out.

Everything changed when I discovered Jim Thompson. Reading “Hell of a Woman” was like a religious experience for me. It wasn’t so much trying to copy him as learning from him. It was so unbelievably liberating seeing how rules can be broken if you have the guts to do it. It opened my eyes to what writing could be. And that’s when I started writing my first novel, which was originally titled “In His Shadow” but would be published years later as “Fast Lane”. And that’s when I first felt like I was understanding what I was doing. This was 1991.