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

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.