Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, October 1993 - Cover ill. Richard Parisi.
The pitch process was interesting and a little odd, from a book writer’s point of view, anyway. For a long time – almost a year – I have worked with a top management company to develop a “pitch document.” I don’t remember ever polishing a piece of writing more times or more thoroughly, and I had expected I’d either be reading it or working from an outline of it. I practiced doing it both ways with Barb (don’t take that out of context) and hated the two approaches equally. One of the handful of things I do well is speak extemporaneously, and neither approach tapped into that. […]
I was relieved when, last Monday, my prep for the pitch meetings (set for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) included the news that I would not be using the pitch document. That I would be talking extemporaneously to the network execs. I don’t get nervous or anxious in front of audiences, and these pitch meetings included very high ranking people at some of the most famous cable networks. But I was loose and not intimidated, and pretty funny frankly, which I think helped.
Oddly, the pitch document was not left behind at any of the five networks we saw. Apparently you need to have such a document in case somebody asks to see it. But nobody did.
Walter B. Gibson, the writer who transformed The Shadow from a radio announcer to a pulp hero, was born September 12, 1897. Gibson was serving as a ghostwriter for novels and stories by magicians, including Harry Houdini, when he was tapped by Street & Smith to develop a character out of the mysterious announcer of their Detective Story Hour radio program. Under the pen name “Maxwell Grant,” Gibson wrote over 300 Shadow novels. The public was captivated by the character and his adventures; at one point, Gibson was writing 10,000 words a day to keep up with the twice-a-month publication deadlines.
It was Gibson who gave the Shadow his background as a dark and sinister avenger for justice. Gibson’s novels set the groundwork for the radio shows, comic books, and films that followed; it was Gibson who created the identity of Lamont Cranston and the Shadow’s powers and abilities. The radio shows deviated from the novels (in Gibson’s books, the Shadow’s true identity was aviator Kent Allard; Lamont Cranston was just one of his disguises), but we wouldn’t know and love the Shadow today without Walter Gibson’s passion and creative spark.
Gibson also worked in radio as a scriptwriter in the early seasons of Nick Carter, Master Detective. I’ll post some of his Nick Carter mysteries today. And for more from the Golden Age of Radio, click here to subscribe to the “Down These Mean Streets” podcast in iTunes.
The House of Secrets, Vol. 1, no. 101, October 1972; cover art by Michael W. Kaluta.
"I’m slightly dodgy about the idea of seeing this as a "female-centric" book, because I think that a book about a bunch of male teenagers wouldn’t be seen as a male-centric book; it would be seen as a book about the universal human experience. I don’t think this really is a book about experiences that are specific to girls or women - it’s meant to be about that whole process of deciding not only who you are but who gets to decide that, who gets to define you. Is it your friends, is it peer pressure, is it authority, is it media, is it your own instincts? And trying to find a balance between all of these factors. And if you don’t balance them right, as some of the characters don’t, you can either end up losing yourself entirely in this cluster of media images of what you should be, or you can end up without enough feedback from outside sources - you can end up, as one of the characters does, losing hold of reality, and things can go very badly wrong there.
And that’s not specific to girls, it’s not specific to teenagers - it’s heightened in teenagers, but it goes across the board. Chris [Harper, the murder victim] is dealing with that in the flashback sections just as much as the girls are. Because he’s handsome and charismatic and good at sports, people project what they want to see on him, try to define him, and he’s fighting for ways to try to define himself just as much as the girls are. And Stephen as well is trying to decide who is going to be allowed to define him. Is he going to do it? Is he going to let the higher echelons of the police force, the people who could give him more of a career, is he going to let them and his ambitions define him? Is Frank going to define who he is and how he acts in crucial situations? And I don’t think that this issue is female-centric at all. The characters happen to be girls, but I’m dodgy about the idea that we can define books with male characters as books about the human experience while defining books about girls as female-centric.
I worry about the fact that anything with female characters, it’s assumed that there’s no reason guys would be interested or it’s not relevant to them. No! For the most part, people deal with all the same things. And I think it’s quite patronizing to guys to say, oh, they’re not capable of seeing things from this slightly different viewpoint. Guys are perfectly capable of imagination and empathy just as much as women. It overrates the differences between the sexes while it underrates the differences between individuals. I have more in common with some men than with some women. I’ve got more in common with my best guy friend than with Paris Hilton. As long as we’re considering gender to be the basic divide of humanity, it completely underrates what individuals are.”
Tana French, September 4
Everyday E Books
Nick Hornby (read the whole article there) :
A little over 10 years ago, I was offered a happy compromise, by the American literary magazine The Believer. I agreed to write a monthly column about the books I had consumed that month. I could read old books or new books, fiction or non-fiction, graphic novels or poetry. I would read, in other words, like a normal person, rather than a critic.
[On a personal note: This is what I did when I was reviewing books in fanzines - I’d just write about whatever I’d read in the past quarter and felt worth talking about. To make it more interesting, I’d group my reviews by pairs, books that shared a common theme or setting, or otherwise resonated well with one another]
There was only one catch. I wasn’t allowed to be rude about anything. The Believer took, and still takes, the view that there are lots of things to say about books other than whether one likes them or not,
Would like to see some comics criics take this approach. But then again we’ve had this talk about comics “criticism” since at least the mid-’90s, and are still having it.
and that it seems a pity to write about books we don’t like when there are so many we love.
The magazine’s philosophy posed a question, however, one I had, bizarrely, never properly thought about ever since I had learnt to read: how does one choose books that one knows one is going to enjoy? The obvious answer is that you can’t.
Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women for the money. And it made her miserable.
As a young writer, Alcott concentrated on lurid pulp stories of revenge, murder, and adultery–“blood and thunder” literature, as she called i–and enjoyed writing very much. She was in her mid 30s when an editor suggested she try writing a book for girls. Alcott wasn’t very interested, but her father was a complete moron with money and had left the family in terrible financial trouble. Alcott wrote Little Women in hopes of some decent sales and a little breathing room and got way more than she asked for. The money in sequels was too good to turn down (and her father didn’t get any smarter with a dime), but Alcott hated writing what she called “moral pap for the young” and longed to return to the smut and violence of her early endeavors.
Which makes it very interesting that she had Jo write pulp material and then later repent it, in the books.(via violetimpudence)
You get described a lot as someone who’s taken the detective genre to “another level.” Do you agree that’s what you’re doing?
I think I’m part of a wave of writers who love mysteries and who don’t see any reason why we, or our readers, should be told “Mystery novels must do this and no more.” I’ve never been much for the artificial divide between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction. You still occasionally get the tired old clichés about genre fiction being badly written and full of one-dimensional characters, and literary fiction being plotless and meandering, but that’s more and more obviously silliness. That perceived genre barrier is disintegrating, and I love that. I’ve never seen why audiences should be expected to be satisfied with either gripping plots or good writing. Why shouldn’t they be offered both at once? Whether I actually manage to offer them both (or either) is a whole other question – but that’s what I’m aiming for. And in that context, I think I started writing at the perfect time. In the 1990s, the mystery genre opened up. People like Laura Lippman and Dennis Lehane were writing mysteries that had gripping plots and complex characters and beautiful writing and social depth. Donna Tartt blew the boundary between crime fiction and literary fiction wide open with The Secret History. Writers like John Connolly and Michael Gruber were bringing supernatural elements to a genre that had mostly been very firmly tied down to the naturalistic. By the time I started writing In the Woods, in 2004, the whole genre looked very different from the way it had fifteen years earlier; there was space for new things to happen within it. There are more and more wonderful writers – people like Gillian Flynn, Kate Atkinson, Stef Penney – who are breaking down the mystery genre’s old boundaries, carving out new zones for it, making readers see it in new lights. I hope I’m a part of that.
— What Takes A Mystery Novel To Another Level? A Q&A With Tana French (via alexsegura)
There are scores of professional writers out there who sell huge numbers of crime novels, tie-ins and westerns, and yet are virtually unknown…because they toil as work-for-hire authors. One of those writers is Robert Vaughan, who has sold 40 million books, mostly westerns. He was interviewed about his under-the-radar career recently and he’s pretty frank about his lack of celebrity.
I have written well over 400 books. If I had written every one of those books under my own name, Robert Vaughan would be a name that is immediately recognized. I would have established something of value that my survivors could capitalize on after I die…In my life time, I have probably sold 40 million books, but nobody knows who I am.
But I bet he didn’t really have a choice. Like many writers, me included, he probably took the work-for-hire gigs that came along to pay the bills and didn’t necessarily take a long-range view of what the cumulative effect might be on his career. I certainly didn’t.
Mickey Spillane took another turn in front of the camera as (surprise) a best-selling writer in the 1974 Columbo episode “Publish or Perish.”
Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was.
— james ellroy (via guerreotype)
Damn. I loved his work a lot. John Francis Cuddy was one of my favorite ’80s-’90s P.I.s, and the Staked Goat is one damn good early series novel.
Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 6
Anonymous asked: As an aspiring novelist, I often have ideas that I think would make great books and then I write 30 pages and find that there’s nothing more to tell. Is this something you’ve ever struggled with? Have you abandoned ideas that haven’t gelled? How far into the first draft of your book did you know that it was going to be a novel?
This is an interesting question, so thank you for asking it, whoever you are. I suppose it’s easiest for me to answer the last part first, which is to say that I didn’t know I was writing a novel until I was many iterations into it. The truth is that I had purposely kept myself in the dark about that fact, mostly because I had somehow at a young age gotten it in my mind that novels, especially first novels, had to be Grand Statements About Society, or at the very least a stage on which to announce my talent. I had written my way into a few of these projects and I doubt it’s surprising to hear that they were grandiose and terrible. But still this was my deep, private, unspoken vision for myself, that I wouldn’t just “write a novel” but would come thundering onto the cultural landscape like Godzilla, with a book—whatever it was about didn’t really matter—that allowed me to transcend my polite, everyday, innocuous self and tower above the public in a way that caused them to marvel. Novel writing for me was synonymous with a young man’s desire to be seen, the place I had poured all of my need for recognition.
Whereas a short story, a simple, light-hearted twenty pages, didn’t carry any of that baggage. It was, most importantly, private. How it would be perceived was less important for me than the pleasure of articulation, of finding words for the many tiny movements of my internal life, which at that time was plagued with self-consciousness and aching with ambition, so that in the course of my day I felt every minute slight or gesture of approval as either a crushing failure or soaring triumph, an exhausting experience that I tried to carry without letting any of it on. Anyway, that short story then became a forum for expressing this over-reactive internal life, for using narrative to somehow communicate all that was for me in my day-to-day life incommunicable. In those pages, unlike in just about every other place in my social world, every gesture and phrase didn’t have to be directed toward the end goal of being loved, and thus the more complex (which I know is often just code for “unpleasant”) feelings could find expression.
I realize that’s a little wishy-washy and also might sound like I’m advocating for something that sounds suspiciously like the emotional barf of confessional writing, but all of it is to say that before this particular project (and if I’m honest, during most of my time in graduate school) there was no such thing to my mind as writing for myself. When I sat down to work it was all directed toward the imaginary perceptions of others. But in this project, which I kept hidden and refused to put up for critique in workshop, I had been able to silence that impulse long enough to begin to understand what was beautiful about the forces of narrative, and the compression and clarity required by storytelling: that it unearthed in me the articulation of that which I had felt acutely but hadn’t understood.
The problem was that the project didn’t work as a short story. Like in any way. No matter how many drafts I wrote. So it grew into something I called a novella (which meant it was long and formless and I didn’t know what it was), then into something I called a novelito (which was a new literary form I told myself I was inventing). Finally, after Googling “minimum word count novel,” I gave myself reluctant permission to call it what it was.
And that was how I wrote the first draft.
As you can probably tell, the process of writing, and probably creating anything in general, is for me inextricable from the processes of psychology and self-esteem, which is to say in my case having the confidence not only to speak but to say something that isn’t uttered solely for the approval of others, or as an attempt to shape how they might perceive me.
So when it comes to your predicament of starting novels, getting thirty pages in and feeling like you’ve said everything you have to say, my gut tells me (having been there oh-so-many times myself) that perhaps rather than running out of material, you actually haven’t spent enough time to truly find it. Perhaps, like me, the project in your mind is already being reviewed in the New York Review before you’ve written the first sentence. Perhaps you haven’t yet trusted the idea enough to push through the uncertainty, to go beyond what you already know of it and allow it to transform into whatever it wants to be. Perhaps you haven’t yet allowed yourself to cede control. My experience is that novels find their expression, that if you stick with them long enough and follow the writing that feels the most vital, they end up being about what is most vital to you.
My primary challenge is always in shucking from myself the instinct to please (or to shock, or impress, or enamor). Because there is a gargantuan difference between the public and private selves and when facing a blank page they can so easily become entangled. And while of course the end goal is to write something worth making public, it seems to me the only way I’ve ever done so is through a long and convoluted process of duping myself into not being conscious of that. Creating for me is as much about silencing the urge to perform as it is about silencing doubt. In fact those are probably the same thing. It takes a while to see it, but there is always tremendous richness and depth and meaning in your own subjectivity. That is the substance of your voice. The trick is to find a way to sit with it, to not decide its fate. Because you really can’t. In the end you have no say over how your work is perceived. All you can do is take the time to listen to that private part of you, the dank, languageless part, and pour your energy into being as precise as possible in its articulation. I am continually elated to discover how fascinating anything is when you take the time to look closely enough.
Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:
- On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.”
- On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
- On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”
- On Self-Publishing, or Not: “Yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them.”
- On Writing and Money: “I have seen just about as many paths as there are people.”
Have a question for Ted? Drop it in our Ask Box.
Raymond Chandler, one of the fathers of modern detective fiction, was born July 23, 1888. He turned to writing after the Great Depression cost him his job as an oil executive. Chandler’s first story was published in Black Mask magazine in 1933, and six years later his first novel appeared. That novel was The Big Sleep, and it introduced the world to Philip Marlowe, the tough but philosophical private detective.
Marlowe’s adventures have been adapted for the big screen, television, and radio. The list of actors who have stepped into his suit and shoulder holster includes Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, Danny Glover, and James Caan. On radio, Marlowe’s adventures could be heard from 1947 to 1951, with Gerald Mohr most famously giving voice to the gumshoe.
In honor of Chandler’s birthday, I’ll play two episodes of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe starring Gerald Mohr this Sunday in Episode 68 of the podcast. And stay tuned today for some old time radio adaptations of some of Chandler’s screenplays and short stories.
For more hard-boiled detectives from the Golden Age of Radio, click here to subscribe to the “Down These Mean Streets” podcast in iTunes.