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.



ImageLike most writers, I understand, it took a long time for me to find a publisher who was willing to accept one of my submissions. Many won’t even look at submissions from unknown writers and a good many note that they are not presently considering new material. I did get offers, but they were patently phony. Agents and publishers alike who were willing to talk to me wanted money. Luckily, thanks to sites like Writer Beware, I was savvy enough not to spend money I didn’t have to spend. So I was really thrilled when I received my first acceptance letter. A real publisher had read part of my novel, asked for the rest and she wrote back that the rest did not disappoint her. Still living in the Dark Ages, I packed up my 80,000 word manuscript and shipped it off at no mean expense and trouble to Canada. Eventually it came back, refused by the publisher. When I wrote to ask what happened, I received an apology. The publisher assumed I knew they only dealt with electronic submissions. Okay, lesson learned. I was happy at first with being a Published Author and, although I approved the cover, I eventually came to hate it. The lack of communication that began with the paper manuscript continued. Somehow, my publisher and I continued to have little misunderstandings. Then a second manuscript, initially approved, somehow got lost. When I submitted it again, she rejected it because she had just acquired two “Cozies”.  This while my novel was a police procedural! Eventually we parted in friendly fashion with my rights reverting to me. At about that same time I submitted another novel to a different publisher who accepted it. Wow! Two acceptances at almost exactly the same time, this after years of rejection. This publisher appeared to be great and even created a really neat and appropriate cover for the book. We didn’t always agree of course. She insisted that I not use contractions in narrative. In dialog okay, but not in narrative. Being new and glad to find a publisher, I tried to go along, but eventually when I pointed out that many authors use contractions in narrative, she appeared shocked and said it had only been a suggestion. After all, I was the author. Okay, but that came a little late. Unfortunately the books began falling apart the minute people got their hands on them. The publisher did offer to replace them, and eventually she assured me the problem had been fixed. However, from there things only went downhill for her and before long, she had to go out of business. She did return my rights. Another publisher accepted a novel and she appeared to be really professional. Even assigned an editor to work with me to make my novel as perfect as possible. Unfortunately, along the way she evidently discovered that there’s a lot more money in erotic novels than in mainstream, and by the time my novel was published, there it lay, a somewhat noir, but mainstream novel tucked in among steamy erotic novels featuring nudes on the covers and positioned in a way that no one would ever notice it. She returned my rights too, and we parted company in a friendly fashion. I found another publisher. She was very cooperative and helpful and published two of my mysteries. They came out with good covers and looked good and the books didn’t fall apart, but soon she fell ill and eventually had to sell to another person who apparently knew little about the publishing business. My relationship with the new owner was spotty at best and eventually I got my rights back. Finally, at long long last my work landed on the desk of my current editor. We hit it off immediately and we’ve continued to have a good relationship ever since. She has published all these other novels from before along with new ones. At the present time I have ten novels with her and two more are being edited even as I write.  She answers my dumb questions, offers suggestions, is very helpful and cooperative in putting together great cover art, and I’m currently working on another novel which I hope she’ll like as well. From this little jeremiad, as you may surmise, finding a publisher is hard enough for anyone of course, but being able to find one with whom you’ll have a great relationship borders on being a miracle. I’m really thankful that I fell into the good graces of my current publisher. I hesitate to mention names because I don’t want her overwhelmed by writers who are looking for the same relationship I have. I’m sure she isn’t right for everyone, and that’s probably as it should be. But out there somewhere, I’m equally sure there’s a publisher who’s just right for you. If you don’t hit it off with the first one…or two, keep looking. You just have to keep looking. Just had a great idea for a new web business: Match Writer and “Find your Muse’s match for you.” Boy, I may be onto something here. Excuse me. I’ll finish this later.


Books at the Library



Wow, Barrie Olmstead, in charge of new books, has accepted my books in print for the shelves at the Sacramento Public Library. If anyone who reads this can get down there to check out a copy, the next move will to be ask for more, more, more. My publisher will love you and I’ll love you. Maybe even the library will love you and name a wing after you. 

My Favorite Detective

 When I was supposed to be reading fairy tales in the Children’s Room of my local library, I wandered into the grown-up department and stumbled upon a row of Charlie Chan novels.

Of course, even as an innocent child of nine, I knew about Charlie Chan from the movies. I nailed a book and told the inquisitive librarian it was for my dad. I went through all the Charlie Chan books on hand and of course, they being in the mystery and detective section, I ran into many others. Sherlock Holmes of course, Ellery Queen, Hércule Poirot, Rouletabille, etc. Over the years I ran the gamut of fictional detectives from Philo Gubb to Philo Vance and I’m still going.

I’m occasionally asked which is my favorite fiction character, or even more explicitly, who is my favorite fictional detective.

Now if I were asked about my favorite real-life detective, I’d have to go with Eugène François Vidocq. You may or may not know that this ex-con began his own detective agency in Paris, hiring other ex-cons to work for him. He felt they had the advantage of “inside knowledge” of the criminal element. He was right. This has been “clinically proven” to be true. A penitentiary is a wonderful school for those interested in a criminal career.

M. Vidocq was doing so well — to the chagrin of the jealous police of the time — that eventually the city fathers allowed Vidocq to form an official group which became known as the Sûreté. This unit lives on today in France, known presently as La Police Nationale.

And that wasn’t all. For better or for worse, M. Vidocq also set up the world’s first credit reporting agency. As we all know, credit reporting today is a vast business empire.

But back to my favorite fictional detective. I’ve given this considerable thought, because there have been so many great fictional detectives.  I love Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Lord Peter Wimsey is a favorite as is Hércule Poirot. I’ve enjoyed all the Philo Vance and Charlie Chan novels and getting into TV I loved Rockford as well as his unforgettable part time buddy, Richie  Brockelman. Fletcher and Columbo are unforgettable as well.

I liked Hildegarde Withers, Nero Wolfe and Malone…Ah, there have been so many neat detectives, and so many more to come.

Poirot, while a wonderful detective, was so vain as to be sometimes intolerable. Philo Vance was such an unforgivable snob, but we had to admire his acumen. The hard-boiled guys are great too, but in the end, they’re so nearly alike that they’re just about interchangeable. Philip Marlowe could’ve been dealing the Gutman while Sam Spade could’ve been dealing with Moose Malloy. Okay, maybe Spade “fooled around” a little more than Marlowe, but other than that nobody would’ve noticed the difference.

As I say, I’ve given the matter considerable thought, and in the end I’m a little embarrassed, being a man, not to have come up with Mike Hammer or some other tough guy like that and instead of going all soft over…Miss Jane Marple.

Okay, it’s out of the closet. I admit it. I can’t get enough Jane Marple. In films we had some very unlikely Marples. Not bad actors, just bad scripts and bad casting.

In the end, for me, Joan Hickson embodied the perfect Jane Marple. She looked exactly like the Miss Marple of my imagination. She, and the TV productions were first rate. Of course the books by Agatha Christie were right on the money. Not everybody would like Miss Marple, obviously. She was  admittedly a nosy parker. She was forever sticking her nose where it was not appreciated. She baffled the police by her perception but they were forced to admire her. For a person to live around her, life might not have been so pleasant. She didn’t go out of her way to curry favor with anyone.

But there it is: I’m stuck with it and I admit it. Now everybody knows.

Yay for Miss Marple.


                                                  Joan Hickson,   “Me? A nosy-parker? Well, yes, I suppose I am.”



Did you ever dream of being a hard-boiled private eye? Maybe you should try the Izzy and Vero method: just pick up a  trench coat at your local thrift store and place an ad in the Penny Saver.

Hey, it works, at least for Izzy and Vero. Next day they get Dema, their very first client. Dema is a sweet but strange young woman with a tape obsession so severe she should have her own reality show. Red flag there, but hey! these guys are detectives, not rocket scientists.

Dema wants Izzy and Vero to look for her missing grandfather. They don’t have to look far. He’s dead.

Before they have any idea what’s going on, they’re up to their fedoras in trouble. Big trouble. A serial killer is on the loose and seems to be looking for them. The cops are on the case and they do not like shamuses meddling in their investigations, especially PI’s who don’t even have a license. License? They don’t even have a license to drive!

These gumshoes are mired in one sticky situation, but maybe — just maybe — they’re not as lame as everyone thinks they are. Can they actually solve the case and nail a killer before the cops nail them? Tape will keep you wrapped up tight while you try to figure out what’s really going on. Check this out at, or get a hard copy from Cambridge Books. Also available at most sites, Kindle. etc. and wherever only the best books are to be found.

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