01 June 2012

Of Caliber and Detail


by Dixon Hill

I admit it . . . 

I’m a sucker for those old hard-boiled mystery/suspense books. You know: the ones from the 30’s, 40’s or 50’s.  The Continental Op, Sam Spade, Phil Marlowe; how can a person resist?   Well, maybe you can. But, I can’t. The pace alone, in these books, usually picks me up and runs away with me.

 I do quite a bit of reading in doctors offices these days — often when driving my dad around and, lately, because my wife needed some surgery. Yesterday I finished Steve Fisher’s No House Limit originally published in the 1950’s.  My copy (the library's copy, really) is the Hard Case Crime release, put out in 2008, an edition with a cover that assures me the novel is COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED.

No House Limit is set during the time period in which it was written, and takes place (in case you can’t guess from the title) in Las Vegas. A cover blurb promises: “Sex, sadism, and action.” And the book delivers pretty well.

At just over 200 pages, I’m impressed by how much the author manages to fit in — without making the book seem cramped, or as if he’s reaching too much. Fisher not only wrote a whopping tale of a syndicate trying to smash a lone-wolf casino owner, he also managed to spin two love story subplots through those pages (three if you count the obvious love and loyalty felt between the casino owner and his security chief) without watering down the action and suspense.

Were there some cheesy spots? Sure. For instance, I always get a kick when two people fall in love and run off to get married after having first seen each other three days before, and having spent only two hours together during that time. On the other hand, the story IS set in Vegas — where I’m sure odder couplings have occurred. And, if it was cheese, well . . . it was very tasty cheese (at least to me): deftly drawn, springing naturally from the main plot-line, and ratcheting up both tension and action. Not the easiest thing for love story subplots to accomplish in an action/suspense novel.

I suppose, however, that I shouldn’t have been surprised. Steve Fisher was evidently nothing, if not a prolific writer. According to an afterward written by his son, Michael, Steve Fisher wrote 90 to 100 published novels, plus 900 short stories, and around 120 movies or television episodes.

 Frankly, I find such numbers daunting. 


 I always feel a little pang of sympathy when re-reading the essay in the back of my copy of the Big Sleep, in which Chandler is described as being “Never a prolific writer …”. I always wonder if he spent too much time thinking things through — the way I tend to. Thankfully, I don’t have to contend with major problems such as alcoholism. I just have to watch the kids 24/7 now that school is out, and I’m still running errands for my dad.  Plus: the cigar store’s new owner likes my work – so he’s scheduling me for more hours.  And (as usual) my Stay-at-Home-Dad chores keep calling loud and messily: The garbage in the kitchen can just keeps accumulating! The sink full of dishes over-floweth! My kids need rides to friends’ houses, and – now that it’s summer – pool maintenance begins in earnest.

Somewhere in here, I keep trying to shoe-horn in a little synopsis writing for my latest manuscript.

 It’s been taking a long time, because . . . . 


Well, quite possibly because I’m a bit of a bonehead.  And, as I mentioned above, I tend to dither around, trying to think things all the way through.

As I wrote earlier on SS: To me, writing the synopsis, blurb, or cover letter for a novel is the hardest part of the job. I’ve got a very thin window though which to “flash” a potential agent the important stuff inside my manuscript. But, that’s not enough. That flash has to be big and bright — eye-catching!
J. Jonah Jameson as I remember him in the comic books.

 And, even that’s not enough.


 I picture an agent (male or female, it doesn’t seem to make a difference in my mind’s eye) as looking like J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker’s editor in the Spider Man comics and films. I seldom read comic books, as a kid. But, I did read Spidey. I found myself drawn into the story, because having super powers complicated this boy’s life instead of simplifying it. Spider Man might have been a hero (to those who understood him), but poor Peter Parker still got kicked around and felt like a loser. Talk about your fertile literary ground!




As an aside: I really thought Jonathan "J.K." Simmons did a great job of portraying ol’ Tripple-J in the fairly recent Spider Man movies. Even his voice matched what I’d imagined, when reading the comics as a kid.

J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson

     Now, don’t get the idea I confuse editors with agents. 


I don’t. I’ve been writing for several years, have a J-School degree with Walter Cronkite’s name on it, have worked on newspapers and been published in magazines as well. I know the difference between agents and editors; believe me. Still, the two have a lot in common.

 They’re both what I was taught to call “Gatekeepers” back in school. Their job begins by separating the wheat from the chaff, and many of them accept this as a near-sacred duty — protecting the ramparts of publishing from scurrilous tomes that don’t meet those guidelines the New York Times might call “… Fit to Print”. And, then the job goes deeper.

Their time is valuable (which is why they employ First Readers, to take some of the slush load off their backs) and they’ve got limited resources. Just like the rest of us, they have a finite reserve of personal and/or corporate energy, plus a budget to watch. And — like writers — their jobs involve a certain amount of gambling.

We writers gamble our time and fortunes against the odds of making a sale that will pay off. Agents and Editors are looking for a payday, too, but their wagers are larger, the stakes are more cut-throat, and the playing area much more complex.
12-inch Naval Gun Battery   (Not me in the picture.)

So, it’s not enough that an agent thinks a manuscript is “good” or that the writing is “pretty decent.” Both editors and agents know that this limitation on time and resources means they can only really pull out the “Big Guns” for those projects that excite them. That's Big Guns!  You know: like 12-inch naval cannon -- the sort battleships used to carry.  Consequently, my synopsis has to generate excitement.

But, how am I supposed to do that?

40 mm Bofors
How can I be sure that, once an agent’s eye is caught by the bright flash my query sends through that thin window of opportunity, s/he then finds enough literary “meat” to sink sharp publishing-savvy “teeth” into.

And, that meat’s gotta be the right texture, coupled with the right flavor — intriguing to the mouth, for the particular agent I want to land.

I figure it's a certain type of detail.

I know they’re not going to fire off the publishing equivalent of a 12-inch naval gun, when my manuscript is for a first novel. And, frankly, I’d do Cheeta Flips if they just fired the equivalent of a 40-mm Bofors. But, I figure I’d better write as if I’m working to get cover fire from a battle ship. Otherwise, I think the response is likely to be a rejection slip, and no cover fire at all.

So, I'm working to be sure my synopsis clearly indicates that I've dotted every "i" and crossed every "T", that my plot-line is tight and hole-less, while throwing in a few quick strokes that show the workings of subplots or underlying theme.  Finally, I think the synopsis has to read well.  It has to set a hook, working by itself, so that -- even if s/he initially ignores the enclosed manuscript pages -- the agent feels compelled to read them after all, to see if the manuscript's writing stands up to the caliber of the synopsis writing.

All of this takes a lot of thinking.

But . . . I don't know.  I freely admit to being ignorant.  I've studied tons of books about agents, hunted through myriad agent lists trying to narrow down to the right names -- the folks who are out there looking for the book I'm trying to sell.  But I'm also up against a time clock; I need to get this thing done and out, start that glacial pace of publishing (if I'm lucky!) in motion.  I keep working, but I keep wondering: Am I over-thinking it?.

 So . . . 


Here I sit, writing a synopsis as if I expect somebody to get so excited s/he will want to pull out 12-inch naval guns, while knowing full-well that I’ll be lucky to receive a few rounds of 40-mm Bofors support fire.  (Or, more probably, a single volley of shotgun pellets.  Hopefully not rock salt!)

 But . . . I’m afraid I just don’t know what else to do.

 Any hot tips out there?

 See ya’ in two weeks!

 --Dix

5 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Dixon, you're a true-bore high-calibre writer, explosive in the breach, an author who can't be choked or muzzled.

My best suggestion is to review the notes of Noah Lukeman, probably free on-line. But yeah, it's telling your story in miniature. That takes brass!

David Dean said...

Dix, you may be over-thinking this. Something I'm rarely accused of myself. You've got plenty of talent so (sticking with the metaphors here) pull the trigger. What have you got to lose, but postage?

Anonymous said...

Got to love that Continental Op!

Dixon Hill said...

Thanks, guys! And, Leigh, I'll check out Noah Lukeman. Thanks for the tip. And, David, I think you're right about pulling that trigger!

Anon: Too right! Gotta love 'im!

--Dix

Dixon Hill said...

Hey, Leigh, I Googled Noah Lukeman and realized I've read several of his books. In fact, I've been trying to follow many of his suggestions.

Guess great minds really do think alike. LOL

--Dix