Showing posts with label Chris Knopf. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chris Knopf. Show all posts

21 November 2022

Sorry, just not a good fit.

Chris Knopf

No writer likes rejection. That’s because no human being likes being rejected. But writers are often more eloquent in their anger and despair over rejection, because they’re writers and have some time on their hands as the result of being rejected so often.

The kind of rejection I like is terse, breezy and obviously canned.

This means they just don’t want you. I’ve had rejection letters that actually go to some trouble to express their bitter disappointment over the quality of my submission. This takes some extra effort.

There’s no solace anyone can offer the rejected writer.

But we can at least appreciate that other, better writers than ourselves have experienced far more devastating rebuff. I’m always hearing about some world-famous, best-selling author who wrote fifty novels that were rejected two thousand times before a fluke cracked open the door, with the rest being, naturally, history.

I spent most of my adult life as an advertising copywriter, which is the ultimate cage fight of unrelenting rejection.

You not only enjoy having your best ideas die like rotted fruit on the vine, but sometimes a bit of derision accompanies the occasion. I had a client accuse me and a creative partner of being on drugs, which we weren’t, though in that moment we considered it. (That campaign was later approved and was the most award-winning work I ever did. But that’s another story.)

So I’m pretty thick-skinned.

I admit, at first I usually consider the rejection a pathetic failure of critical judgment by people with diminished mental capacities, but later, after cool reflection, I go back and re-examine the work. Often this inspires me to make genuine improvements, or at least, launch another project that might have a better chance. I’ll show you, you knuckleheads.

I never liked Nietzsche’s line, “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”

In fact, what doesn’t kill you can often leave you in a puddle of broken dreams, bones and/or recurring headaches. That written, nothing succeeds like failure when it comes to motivation. Even if those who’ve defeated you are wrong in their estimation. Especially.

I’ve also worked as an editor, publisher and creative director, where much of my job involved rejecting other people’s work.

My approach, as with other arbiters I’ve admired, was to point out the good parts before admitting the shortcomings were insurmountable. It still didn’t feel so great. I think a lot of people in that role go through the same thing. The creator might feel the sting, but the rejectors often suffer greater remorse for having to deliver the news.

My friend Steve Liskow, who invited me on to this blog, was rejected 350 times before publishing his first short story.

He’s won a passel of awards since then, including being short-listed for an Edgar. I have no words for my admiration of this level of steely determination. My steel has no such equivalent alloys.

I downloaded this article from the New York Times several years ago, and I like re-reading it once in a while.

If you’re a writer, I guarantee you will also enjoy reading it. It’s not often I can make that claim, but I do here.

If you’re daunted by the paywall, write me at, and I’ll super copy it and send along.

By the way, it’s especially fun for me to see my last name (no relation, as I’m forced to constantly explain) so liberally used within an article on foolish rejections, in particular those from the most exuberant rejector of them all, Alfred Knopf.

07 November 2022

Creativity. Damned it you do, damned if you don't.

Creative work often presents itself as pure invention, when in fact, it’s merely a reconstitution of existing forms.  These are successful forms, which is why writers, editors and publishers produce this work by the trainload.  One only needs to see a lot of blockbuster movies, listen to commercial radio and read thick airline-oriented thrillers to know this is true.  There is tremendous comfort in diving into the familiar.  Like that cardboard container of MacDonalds French fries, you know what you’re going to get, and you can’t wait to get at it.

I’m totally down with this.  I read Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker and Rex Stout because they’re a known commodity.  Important for me, they’re also really good at it.  They know how to maintain a familiar rhythm and context, while introducing just enough surprise and variety to keep the stories interesting.  Also true with some of my favorite TV shows, recently Shetland and Longmire. 

The hang up is that without genuine creativity – offering ideas, themes and plot structures that have never been tried before – the whole art form will eventually die of arterial sclerosis.  It becomes boring, dulling the senses and deflating like a tired old balloon. 

Here enters risk vs. reward.  Most fresh ideas fail.  It’s the cruel reality of biological evolution, that it takes thousands of beings to produce that one mutation that will improve the life prospects of a particular species.  Contrary to common wisdom, publishers are always looking for that one big idea that will transform the industry, and their financial well-being, but in the process kill more nascent innovations than a blue whale scooping up krill. 

Most artists succeed, in the sense of wide recognition and good pay days, because they remind us of what we already know.  But occasionally, someone rips up orthodoxy and shows us something so wonderfully different that we can’t resist assimilating the fresh mutation.  As to TV shows, I’m thinking The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.  Philip K. Dick was so unceasingly creative that his work inspired some of the finest sci-fi movies ever made.  Dashiell Hammett virtually invented the modern detective story.  James Joyce invited readers into the consciousness of his characters in a way that permanently altered the literary arts.   

This is why we need what Steve Jobs called the crazy ones (Philip K. Dick and Vincent Van Gogh were certifiably mentally ill, but that’s not exactly what he meant.)  Business folklore is full of risktakers, iconoclasts, scruffy revolutionaries working out of their parents’ garage.  The ones we know about were not only prolific idea machines, they were also inured against the effects of failure, or had the persistence to fail forward, to keep screwing up until something finally clicked. 

A breakthrough requires two distinct capabilities.  One to come up with the idea, the other to introduce it to the world.  As a practical matter, I think the latter takes the greater risk.  When I was in advertising, I’d remind my fellow creatives that if our campaign fails, we might lose an account, but our partners who worked inside the client companies could lose their jobs.  Creative people tend to dismiss the sensibilities of the money people, but when a half million books get remaindered, they aren’t the ones typing up their resumes. 

Humans are biologically programmed to avoid risk, otherwise, we wouldn’t have made it out of the Pleistocene.  This is why a truly fresh idea is often met with skepticism, if not outright fear.  We also learned in advertising how to somewhat overcome this natural reaction, but at the end of the day, it simply took a lot of guts and faith in the power of originality. 

I once wrote a line for a stock photo company that wanted to encourage their clients to take greater risks by supporting more pioneering photography.  I think it equally applies to the writers, editors and publishers of mystery fiction.

“There is nothing so difficult to create, so delightful to render, or so dangerous to defend, as a new idea.

24 October 2022

All love is good love (in writing as in life.)

I have a particular hobby horse when it comes to mystery writing that I keep well fed and groomed, and in a comfortable barn. 

Good writing is good writing irrespective of the genre.  I’ve got the degrees and read thousands of books of all kinds, and some mysteries are examples of transcendently exquisite writing.

Classical, didactic definitions of exceptional literature are meaningless to me.  What constitutes good writing is in the mind of the reader, though I think we can fairly say that if it engages you, holds your attention to the end, and leaves you feeling a bit excited, the writer’s mission was a success. 

To those who think genre writing, in particular the mystery/thriller species, is somehow second rate, I like to say, “You try it.”  I also play in a rock band. Trained classical musicians might think our musicality is primitive, but if you don’t have a feel for the nuances and texture of the form, it will stick out like a sore thumb.  I love ballet, but I’ve known some ballet dancers who have no idea how to get it done on the dance floor, especially with a disco ball overhead and giant amplifiers pounding in their ears. 

Writers of both literary fiction and mysteries select from the same toolbox.  They both need vividly rendered characters, clever and mellifluous prose and a sturdy, satisfying plot.  In fact, mystery writers cannot succeed without that last ingredient, whereas the literary breed can sort of drift off toward the end of a book with a vague, exhausted glance at their premise and often get away with it. 

The debate over high vs. low art is eternal and unresolvable.  Partly because what’s high or low has been historically fungible.  To me, the Olympian height of visual art was achieved by the Impressionists, though in their own time, the French Academy wouldn’t invite them to a cocktail party, much less to a spot on the wall of the Louvre.  There isn’t a music critic alive today who wouldn’t regard Duke Ellington or Miles Davis as a consummate genius, but go look at their contemporaneous reviews. 

Everyone is entitled to like what they like and disregard the rest.  I have a list of songs and movies I love that my best friends think are complete crap. And vice versa.  That’s not only okay, it’s what makes the arts so richly wonderful.  There’s something for everyone.  That doesn’t mean there can be no objective measures of quality.  There is often a general consensus (few would regard Bo Derrick’s Tarzan movie on par with the best of Truffaut), but you have a right to stand bravely outside the mob and declare your devotion to Bo’s “They’re painting me!” pathos. 

What I argue with is condemnation, or ridicule, of entire swaths of creativity, based entirely on whether or not it fits within a prescribed set of criteria – a frozen, sclerotic definition.  Most, if not all, the mystery writers I know would say they could care a toss about this.  But of course, deep down, they do.

I just know that Scott Turow set out as a young writer to create a mystery/thriller informed by literary techniques and sensibility, and came up with Presumed Innocent, an artistic tour de force.  As did Dennis Lehane with Mystic River and Gillian Flynn with Gone Girl. 

I’m convinced that in a future time, these works will be sitting alongside Faulkner, Twain and Flaubert, and no one will think a toss about it. 

29 August 2022

Last Dance With Mary Jane

Barb Liskow

Today is my wife's birthday (Happy birthday, Barb).

It was Michael Jackson's birthday, too. It's also the 56th anniversary of the Beatles' last live performance, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Apparently, John was sick of touring, but the others were less certain. Paul, for example, loved live performances. Many things stand out about that last show.

For one thing, less than 60% of the seats sold, at a maximum price of $6.50. You can find a video of that show on YouTube, the sound predictably sketchy, and it lasts about 28 minutes. To put that in perspective, Arlo Guthrie's song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" lasts over 18 minutes by itself, and Iron Butterfly's self-indulgent "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is over 17. The live version of "Free Bird" is about 14.

The Beatles played eleven songs, opening with Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" and closing with Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally." They played nothing from Revolver, the new album in record stores. Their next single was "Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane," followed by the Sergeant Pepper LP, so they were moving away from songs they could feasibly perform live anyway. Ringo, the oldest member of the quartet, had recently turned twenty-six.

It feels like a fitting date for me to sign off here, too. I've been contributing to this blog for nearly six years now, and I've loved learning from Barb, Rob, Eve, Liz, Leigh, Janet, John, Michael, and everyone else, but I'm running out of ideas worth sharing.

I've learned about history and historical crimes, police and court procedures, films, sci-fi, aesthetics, and more other topics than I can list here. I've loved commenting and receiving comments from everyone, but it's time to leave the silver bullet on the bar and ride into the sunset.

Like the Beatles, I'm changing my focus, but I'm going in the opposite direction. They moved from singles to albums, and I'm turning from albums to singles. I published my last novel in paper in 2019 (another appeared as an eBook last year), but I have eight short stories due to be published over the next 12-18 months. That would be a total of 46 stories since 2007, along with 16 novels.

I have twelve stories in submission limbo, too (some probably rejected without telling me) and three more in various stages of revision.

Hey, it isn't the Library of Alexandria, but I started late. Music, writing, theater, music again, writing again. I'm still trying to find something I'm good at.

This is a good time to introduce Chris Knopf, who will be joining SleuthSayers and taking over my slot soon. If you don't know Chris's work, you owe it to yourself to check him out. We met at Crime Bake several years ago when I had only published a few short stories and my novels were still seeking a home. When I became an active member of MWA, he agreed to blurb my first self-published novel, which most writers were either unwilling or forbidden to do at that time, and he gave me a huge boost up. 

Chris has published 9 Sam Acquillo novels and 3 Jackie Swiatkowski books, all set in the Hamptons, and assorted stand-alones. He won the Nero Award in 2013, and more and more stories are appearing in the major mystery periodicals like Alfred and Ellery. He writes terrific prose, so clean and vivid you don't notice how good it is until you read someone else after him, and his dialogue is even better. I think you're going to enjoy meeting him.

I'll sneak back when I can work free from other entangling alliances.

And, finally, congratulations to fellow Sleuthsayers O'Neil De Noux, Eve Fisher and Barb Goffman, who have "Other Distinguished Stories" listed in the Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2022.

Stay safe, everyone.

06 June 2022

Crime Conn '22

Last Saturday, I attended a writing conference for the first time in much too long. The in-person attendance was sparse, but many people chose to attend on Zoom. I considered that, but I knew a few writers attending and wanted to catch up. Besides, Tess Gerritsen was the Guest of Honor and Alison Gaylin was on a panel and I wanted to meet them both, especially since Gaylin's The Collective may be the best book I've read so far this year.

The "Changes" panel getting ready

Crime Conn is now a regular event (barring the pandemic) at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT, about 35 miles west of New Haven. That makes it an hour's drive for me, and I got there in time for coffee and donuts and greeting a few friends before the presentations began. The program offered five 45-minute panels with time in between to buy books and get them signed. You can never have too many books and never meet too many crime writers, who are among the most generous people on earth.

The theme of this year's conference was The End of the World As We Knew It, complete with the REM track introducing the festivities. For the music buffs, the panels were "Cha-cha-cha-cha-changes," examining what's different for writers now; "The Eve of Destruction," discussing whether or not this is the Apocalypse; "Forever Young," presenting three YA authors explaining how they help young readers navigate the New Crazy; "Psycho Killer," three current or former law enforcement officers and a death investigator from the CT State Medical Examiner; and "I'll Be There For You," looking at how the last two years of isolation, hostility, and shifting rules have helped writers create or maintain relationships. The final presentation, "Doctor My Eyes," featured John Valeri, a Connecticut book critic and one of mystery writingt's best friends, interviewing Tess Gerritsen.

MWA Chapter Pres Al Tucher
welcomes the guests

I'm pretty sure Chris Knopf, one of the organizers, came up with the titles. That night, he would be playing bass in a band. He and I shared tales of how arthritis affects our guitar playing, but he's still probably much better than I am.

Rather than discuss each panel in depth, here are a few pithy comments from the writers.

From the Changes panel: Multi-racial and gender identity are important in this changing world. Roughly 10% of today's kids are multi-racial, but only 1% of the books out there have a multi-racial character. We have to represent "Different" accurately.

The Eve of Destruction panel asked "Will pandemic books sell?" The idea reappeared in other panels, but the prevailing wisdom is that 9/11 books still don't (the only exception I know might be SJ Rozan's Absent Friends), and we're still too close to Covid. When asked about upping the ante in today's world, the authors stressed that the best approach is not to amp up the crime, but to become more human. I was one of many who appreciated that emphasis on character over "stuff."

The YA writers (I bought books by two of them because they impressed me on the panel) pointed out that backstory informs character NOW. What in the past will make them afraid in the present?

The law enforcement officers explained, among other things, how Covid has changed policing. The New Haven detective observed that the streets were much quieter at first, and that she became leery of interacting with the public. All three panelists tried to minimize arrests and bringing people into enclosed cells. They agreed they'd seen an increase in domestic violence. One officer-turned-writer has not yet included Covid in his work and commented, "It's easier to read and write about adversity after it's over."

Audience at left. The tables of books for sale
in the background

Wendy Corso Staub and Alison Gaylin shared many writers' problems with trying to write when they were no longer alone all day because their hsuband was working from home and the children were learning online instead of in a school. Staub reverted to early morning writing as she did years ago. She would feed her infant child, then stay up and write for several hours before going back to bed. Over the last two years of lockdown, she has completed four novels. 

Tess Gerritsen wanted to write from the time she was seven, but her parents encouraged her to study other fields. She majored in anthropology as an undergrad, became a physician, and plays several musical instruments between writing now. She said, "It doesn't matter what you study, it matters what you LIVE."

The gathering was small enough so writers and audience mingled easily. There was a writing workshop during the lunch break for those who were interested, too.

I sat at a table with Lynn, now working on her first nonfiction book, and Chris, who has not written anything… yet. They both attended the writing workshop. As the conference wound down, they weren't the only ones who looked eager to get back home so they could resume writing.

That's what a good conference does.