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

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.