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

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.