Rules of Writing

I sent an early crime novel to a publisher who had already published one of my novels, but she rejected it, saying that, in a mystery, the victim is only there to provide a puzzle for the reader. Therefore, I should bump somebody — anybody — off in the first few pages and devote the rest of the novel to the investigation whether it be by police detectives, a private detective, or an amateur sleuth. Carefully following her own advice, she rejected my mystery on the grounds that I didn’t murder anyone until just over a hundred pages into the story.

I felt bad, naturally, but at the same time, something in me rebelled. Over the years I had read a great many detective novels and mysteries, and, although at the moment, I couldn’t offer book and page number, I was pretty certain my publisher’s theory was in error. I was almost certain I had read many crime novels, be it private eye tales or police procedurals,  in which a murder didn’t occur until later in the book.

Okay, I got over it and moved on.  A bit later I  found a new publisher.

But the other day I chanced to pick up a tattered old novel by Ngaio Marsh, arguably one of the true queens of mystery fiction, and decided to read it. In this particular novel, “Tied up in Tinsel”, we don’t stumble across a body until page 242 in a book that has only 286 pages. Wow! Obviously, the editor who rejected my little novel also would have thrown Ms Marsh’s effort into the circular file and in her disgust, she might well have sent Ms Marsh a stern message about the way to write mysteries. Too bad for an editor who had made up her mind about what constitutes a mystery novel. But reading the book and remembering the editor’s remarks, the entire incident poured back into my mind and I got all wound up again.

All this the above is a prelude to my remarks that in novel writing, there are no rules. The very word novel conjures up images of something new and different. Now a mystery novel with no murder might not go over well with readers, starting with editors, but still it is legal. There’s no law that says you have to have a murder. A short story, maybe. Remember “The Purloined Letter” by Mr. Poe.

In “Vanity Fair”, Thackeray talks frankly, to his reader. He knows it’s just a story and he knows the reader knows it’s just a story, so tongue in cheek, he goes ahead and tells it, stepping in from time to time to remind us that, after all, it’s just a story.

Fowles puts himself right into the background of a novel while observing the proceedings and of course, in my favorite mystery novels, the narrator, the detective, tells his story as he remembers it. He’s just a reporter giving us, as Sgt. Friday would say, the facts. He’s not the real author of course, but we can suspend belief and assume that private eye Raymond Chandler is just calling himself Philip Marlowe to avoid being stalked by beautiful women with pearl-handled .25 automatics in their handbags.

In fact, being a very young reader when I began reading Marlowe novels, I was severely traumatized to learn one day that Mr. Chandler was in his sixties, meaning Marlowe was in his sixties. Philip Marlowe kicking butt in his sixties? To me, a kid of sixteen, I couldn’t believe anybody in his sixties was still able to walk, much less kick butt or write about the butts he kicked. And I felt very betrayed, almost the victim of a bad joke. But I was a vapid youth of sixteen. Maybe only fifteen.

Most people today lack the patience to wade through “Moby Dick”, but when it was written, I believe people liked a more leisurely novel, something they could spend hours, even days on. They wanted their money’s worth. Remember, at that time there wasn’t much else in the way of entertainment, at least not in that price range. But today what editor would accept a long tedious novel that stops cold, and before continuing, offers lengthy dissertations on whaling, or any other industry?

If there is anything to be gleaned from this little outburst, it is that as author, you are God. Rules, schmules, it’s your creation and you have the right to say anything you want to. Now if you step too far out of recognized lines, you may never find a publisher, but these days with the Internet and self-publishing opportunities being offered every time you log on, you can still get your stuff published.

Now, I don’t suggest you go too far off the grid if you hope to find a traditional publisher who is willing to take a chance on your work, but I do feel that, as the writer, you still have the right so say what you want to.

I should mention that what makes books  like Moby Dick, Sherlock Holmes, Don Quixote, etc. isn’t always their construction, but their unforgettable characters. Remember that.

So the takeaway here is to write what you want to. Once you’ve written it, you might want to see how it compares with similar works. If you feel it’s a little outré in some respect or another, you might want to make a few changes. If you like it the way it is, submit it and see what comes out of that. BIG PUBLISHERS probably won’t look at your masterpiece no matter what it is, but there are a great many independent publishers now. Most of them are open to unpublished writers and if all of these reject your stuff, you may want to revisit the entire work and see what’s holding you back. If you do get feedback, by all means, listen to it. Listen to it, but you don’t have to do more than that. It’s up to you. You’re the writer.

In my case, hearing about the rule that the murder should happen on page three or thereabouts, I nevertheless stubbornly felt I was okay with what I had written and time has proven me to be correct, insofar that another publisher accepted Deadly Reception, and I haven’t had any complaints. So you just have to consider what you’ve written and if you firmly believe you’re right, then stick to it. Sooner or later you’ll connect with the right publisher and hopefully you’ll establish a good relationship.

One last thing that may give you solace: If and when you do get some BIG PUBLISHER to publish your book, you’ll have a very short window of opportunity. If sales after a couple of months or so aren’t what the publisher wants, off with your books head (or cover). It’s gone. Buried without any ceremony, and all you’ll have are the few copies sitting your shelf to remind you that you once had a book published. As an added humiliation, if you’re really unlucky, you may stumble across a few copies of your book in Big Lots or a 99c store but let’s hope that doesn’t happen to you.

If you allow them, most of the indies will keep your book on the Internet forever. You may not sell a lot of POD copies because of the cost, but your masterpiece can float around as an E-book on Kindle, Nook and so on forever and who knows? Maybe one day, like Van Gogh, you’ll be DISCOVERED! Hey, if Picasso and Warhol can be “discovered”, anything can happen.



Deadly Delicious Meat Sauce

Chef Merle Blanc’s signature meat sauce for spaghetti, etc.

(This is the sauce he prepares for visiting Italian dignitaries)

You need two pots, one at least 3 quarts, the other about 2 quarts.

For the larger pot (or large frying pan)


1 lb. ground beef

¼ lb. pork sausage (or Italian sausage, or a slab of salt pork, removed before serving. If you don’t eat pork, just omit it. The chef won’t mind and neither will your guests)

About ¾ cup of each, chopped in ¼ in. squares:



Green Pepper

1 Small Zucchini (Optional)

1 can of chopped tomatoes, drained. (Drain the juice into the broth mixture). If using petite cut, add to the meat mixture. If using regular chopped tomatoes, place drained product on a cutting board and chop a little before adding to meat mixture.

½ cup olive oil

All this goes into the larger pot. Cook over medium heat until veggies are tender and meat browned.

Meanwhile, in the smaller pot add:

4 cups broth (This can be beef, chicken, vegetable or, in a pinch: water.)

You can make easy broth using tinned broth or chicken or beef flavoring, usually 1 tsp. per cup of water, and adding:

5 peppercorns (Or goodly sprinkle of ground pepper)

½ cup balsamic vinegar

¼ cup sugar

1 tsp. dry mustard

1 tsp. anis (not star anise)

½ tsp. allspice

½ cup dry basil leaves or more, chopped or ground. If you have fresh basil, use even more. (don’t be afraid to throw in the basil.)

1 tsp. oregano (Be careful not to overdo the oregano).

1 whole head of garlic, cut coarsely.

1 large bay leaf, crumpled.

Bring to a boil and lower heat.

Now, with both mixtures going, simmer the broth gently while browning the meat and vegetables. If you like to cook with wine,  you can drink it now while you wait.

When the meat and vegetables are done, remove from heat and add:

2 small tins of tomato paste.

Nest, strain the hot broth into the mixture and gently stir, letting the sauce simmer for twenty minutes.  (A great time for a second glass, but don’t walk off and forget what you’re doing.)

When Chef Blanc prepares this, everything of course comes out perfect the first time. But if your sauce (or gravy as the Italians call it) comes out a bit thin, you can add a small can of tomato sauce or a little more tomato paste. If too thick for your taste, add a bit more broth.  At this point, if needed, add additional sugar.  Better to leave the salt and pepper for the table. Yield about 2 quarts of delicious.

Spoon over drained spaghetti or other pasta and top with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Serve with fresh bread and a green salad with oil and vinegar dressing. Your guests will love you and I will too.

When Chef Blanc creates this sauce he says, « Impeccable ! »  When he serves it, even though he is fiercely French, Chef Blanc always says, “Buon appetito !”

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