Saturday, March 14, 2020

DEAD GIRL BLUES-How My New Novel Came About and Why I'm Publishing It Myself: Guest Post by Lawrence Block

DEAD GIRL BLUES—How My New Novel Came About and Why I’m Publishing It Myself

Sometime in the late fall of 2018 I started writing a short story. It began with a man picking up a woman in a lowdown roadhouse. A lot of stories, true and fictional, begin that way. Few of them end well.

This one didn’t end well for the woman. I’d have to finish writing it to find out how it would end for the man.

I was writing it in the first person, which meant I had to live within the psyche of a homicidal sociopath. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about that is how easily it comes to me. But I figured I’d wrap it up in four or five thousand words, and then I could write about something else.

Or nothing at all, if I wanted. I began selling short stories shortly after I turned nineteen, and within a year I’d written a publishable novel. And I kept writing more of them. The estimable Terry Zobeck has just completed a bibliography of my work, and the section of individual books runs to over two hundred volumes. Now some of those are anthologies I’ve edited, while others are nonfiction. But that still leaves ample evidence that writing publishable fiction, and seeing it published, has been something of a habit over the past sixty-plus years.

Which is to say I shouldn’t have to keep doing this to justify my existence. “We’re at that stage in our careers,” my friend Hal Dresner observed, “where the higher moral act is not to write the book but to spare the tree.”

And it was at least twenty years ago that he made this point.

I don’t know how many trees have been slain on my account since then, but I do know my arboricidal impulses have declined in recent years. I had the sense several years ago that I was probably done writing novels. A novel demands energy and focus and concentration to a degree that is less readily summoned up after a certain age. Imagination, a fiction writer’s most precious and least appreciated gift, begins to wane. And the will to put one’s shoulder to the wheel for the long haul of a novel—well, you know, why knock yourself out? Why not sit down and see what’s on TV?

Then again, who cares what’s on TV? Work has become a habit, and I’m much happier and way easier to live with if I’m busy. Besides, the two horses that pull my chariot are as powerful as they ever were. Their names are Ego and Avarice.

So I’ve never ceased being busy. I compile and edit anthologies. I team up with translators and bring out my backlist in German, Italian, and Spanish editions. I reissue under my own name all the books that had quite sensibly born pseudonyms in the past, I take random walks down Memory Lane and turn them into essays, and now and again an idea comes along and engages me enough that I turn it into a short story. Sometimes, if the stars are in alignment, it might run a little long. A novelette, say, or a novella.

This story I was writing, the one about the homicidal sociopath, looked as though it might want to be a novelette. Ten or twelve thousand words, say. Maybe even fifteen thousand.

But when it approached the 12K mark, I saw that it wanted to be a novella, and not one I had any real interest in writing. In fact it was becoming distinctly unpleasant to write, and probably wouldn’t be much fun to read, either.

So the hell with it.

I closed the file, as I always did at the end of a day’s writing, but the difference was that I didn’t open it up the next day. Or the day after that. Or at all, until several months had passed.

Until spring had sprung, in fact. I’m not sure when it was, but sometime in April or May, possibly even early June, I found myself wishing I had something to write. And I remembered the story and decided I probably ought to force myself to look at it and see if there was anything there worth keeping.

And the next day or the day after I did just that. I read it what I’d written, and in spite of myself I really liked what I read. I thought about it, and first thing the following morning I sat at my desk, set a kitchen timer, and wrote for thirty minutes. I wasn’t sure where my protagonist was going, or what he might do when he got there, but I used the tried and true Lost Horse method.

That’s from the story about the moron who found the lost horse when no one else could. How, they wondered, had he managed it? “Well,” he said, “I just asked myself, if I was the horse, where would I go? And I went there, and there he was.”

So that’s what I did. And, well, one thing led to another.

It helped, I suspect, that I wasn’t in a hurry. I wrote every day, except when I didn’t. And I set the kitchen timer, for a half hour or forty-five minutes or sometimes as much as an hour, and when it went off I stopped—except when I didn’t.

I got more and more interested in the characters, not only the man who was telling the story, who became increasingly real for me, but the supporting players as well. They hadn’t existed in those first ten or twelve thousand words, but along the way they appeared in his life, and I liked them, even as I had come to like him.

I still didn’t know where it all would ultimately lead. But what I did always know was what would happen in the next paragraph and on the next page, and that I’d find the horse at the end of it all.

Meanwhile, it kept getting longer. The short story that had turned into a novelette went on to reach novella length. And I kept sitting down at the keyboard, setting my kitchen timer, tapping keys that had done nothing to deserve such treatment, and rising from my desk each day knowing there was more to be written.

Until there wasn’t, at which point the story had grown to 52,000 words.

I can’t claim to have been surprised by that number, as one of the miracles of the computer era is that there’s never a moment when you don’t know how much you’ve written. The software I use is MS-Word, and I don’t even have to choose Word Count from the Tools menu; at the bottom of the page there’s a space where it says Words:—followed by the number thereof contained in the document. In this case, 52,000 of the little darlings.

Look at that, will you? I wrote a novel.

Not, to be sure, a long novel. For comparison, consider that the most recent novels in the Matthew Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, and Keller series ranger from 82,000 to 85,000 words. The latest non-series novel, The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes, was shorter at 61,000, but still almost a fifth as long again as what I’d now written.

On the other hand, 52,000 words was itself more words than you’d find in a good number of my earlier novels. All three of the first Scudder titles, originally published as Dell paperback originals, ran to 47,000 words. My first hardcover book, Deadly Honeymoon, came in even shorter, at 44,000 words. Early ventures in Midcentury Erotica include Carla (47,800), Campus Tramp (46,900) and College for Sinners (45,500). People might fault any or all of these books for one reason or another, but nobody ever said they weren’t long enough to be novels.

So I had a novel. What was I to do with it?

The first thing I did was get my First Readers to give it a first reading. My wife and my three daughters all enthused—which, to be sure, is part of any First Reader’s job description, but their enthusiasm felt authentic enough. (One of my daughters did allow that she might have been more comfortable with the book if she hadn’t kept hearing the narrator’s words in her father’s voice.)

Encouraged, I showed what I’d written to a couple of trusted friends, people who’d been reading my work for years. They all told me they thought it was right up there with my very best work. They also said what I already knew: that I might have problems with it.

I sent the book to my agent, Danny Baror. He could see the book’s strength and its potential, but he could also see the same problems I saw. It was a few degrees darker than the B-side of the moon, it had elements guaranteed to put off any number of readers, and it lacked the pulse-pounding excitement you might expect from a book of its type.

Somebody could surely be found to publish it, but it needed to be published well, by someone willing and able to put a lot of muscle into it. That meant going with a major firm, and drawing down a substantial advance. So he went wide with it, and had the clout to make sure it was read by the key decision makers at top publishing houses.

He ran it, you might say, up a whole lot of flagpoles.

And nobody saluted.

Nor did they thumb their noses. Everyone professed to like the book, but I think we can take that with a flake of kelp. When a good agent sends you a manuscript and makes it clear he has high hopes for it, you don’t tell him it’s crap. You say it’s not quite for us. You insist you think very highly of the writing and the writer, but cite the book’s problems of theme and content. You give it high marks for artistry while faulting it for being insufficiently commercial. And you might even say what publishers in your position have been saying for upwards of thirty years: Gosh, five years ago we would have jumped at this, but the way the business has changed—


Getting rejected was, I have to say, a very interesting experience. I’d undergone it often enough in the early years, but the early years were a long time ago, and I’d largely forgotten how it felt. One of the affirmations I’d developed for my Write For Your Life seminar was “Every rejection brings me closer to success,” and it’s a powerful affirmation indeed, but in the late summer of 2019, when one publisher after another passed, every rejection was bringing me closer to despair.

Now when I initially showed the book to Danny, I knew it might be a problem to market. But by the time he had begun sending it around, my mind had given itself over entirely to a best-case scenario. The book, I realized, was better than I’d thought, better indeed than I’d dared to hope. Surely every heavy hitter from Sonny Mehta on down would line up, checkbook in hand, and whoever shelled out a hefty six-figure advance would then follow through with an appropriate promotional campaign.

And so on.

Well, when nothing of the sort happened, I decided they were all being stupid. All right, I’d tell myself. So-and-so’s an idiot, but What’s-her-name has the brains and vision to see what we’ve got here. She’ll come through for sure.


And then it began to dawn on me that they weren’t crazy, that my book was not the stuff of which bestsellers are made. For heaven’s sake, the book begins with the hero committing a rape and a murder, and—ahem—not in that order. Believe it or not, some readers might find that unsettling.

Nor is it the book’s only unsettling element.

It was, I had to conclude, a very unlikely candidate for bestsellerdom. And, while I’ve had books on various bestseller lists some years ago, it’s been quite a while since I wrote anything that wound up on the charts. My recent sales history alone would keep stores from ordering carload lots of any book of mine, irrespective of the book’s commercial merits or the publisher’s promotional efforts.

And with this particular book, well, forget it.

So they weren’t all crazy. They weren’t stupid, or even misguided.

They were right, dammit.

I should mention that I did have a couple of offers. The publishers who extended them were eminently respectable, and their enthusiasm was gratifying. But their proposed advances were low, and their promotional efforts would be unremarkable, and I had no reason to believe that they could furnish the book with the escape velocity it would need to overcome its own undeniable commercial liabilities.

One of them wanted, oh, a couple of minor changes. Couldn’t I have my guy rape the girl first, and then kill her? And couldn’t the killing be, you know, sort of accidental? A heat-of-the-moment thing? In fact, did he really have to rape her at all, before or after?

Another publisher said he loved the book, and if I absolutely insisted he’d publish it exactly as I’d written it. But he did have a few suggestions, and maybe I’d like to at least think about them.

No, I don’t think so.

And of course they’d expect to get ebook and paperback rights, and to retain control of them forever.

Well, the hell with that. In this age of ebooks and POD paperbacks, a publisher’s hold on a title is essentially absolute and permanent. Technically, nothing ever quite manages to go out of print. It costs the publisher nothing to keep a book forever available, and it’s virtually impossible for an author to get the rights back to anything.

I decided a few years ago that I was no longer giving away eRights. A massive advance on the new book would have induced me to change my mind, but that wasn’t on offer. Barring that, I’d sooner publish the book myself.

Once I decided to do just that, I felt a whole lot better.

Forty or fifty years ago, I’d sit around with good friends like Brian Garfield and Donald Westlake, and we’d fantasize about publishing our own books. We could stop dealing with shortsighted and wrongheaded editors and publishers. We could, by God and all the angels, actually Do It Right.

Now these conversations were often accompanied by adult beverages in quantity, and that does make their content suspect. I’m by no means certain we’d have done anything right, and it was moot to begin with, because there was no practical way we could publish anything ourselves.

Then, of course, the world changed.

My first venture in self-publishing was in the very different world of 1985. I wanted to make my Write For Your Life seminar available in book form, couldn’t imagine that a commercial publisher would want to do it, and more to the point wanted copies as soon as possible to sell them at seminars. I found someone to shepherd the book through the printing process, had five thousand books printed, and sold them all. A successful venture, but one that grew out of special circumstances—and not something I could see myself repeating.

Then the internet came along, and electronic books, and desktop publishing, and everything that followed. Almost before I knew it, my out-of-print backlist was available first as ebooks, then as paperbacks. I self-published new titles—a collection of Matthew Scudder stories, a collection of essays about crime fiction, and a new novel, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons.

By the time I could see that my new novel didn’t have a viable future with commercial publishing, I knew I’d be happiest bringing out Dead Girl Blues myself.

(Except for the headline, I haven’t mentioned the title before, have I? That’s because it started out with another title, which nobody really liked, and then I found a second title for it, which was acceptable but way too generic for a book that was itself, for better or for worse, definitely sui generis.)

By publishing Dead Girl Blues myself, I’m spared all the hurry-up-and-wait time that’s so much a part of the publishing process. If the first prospective publisher who saw the manuscript had bought it on the spot back in late August, when do you suppose it would come out? Well, if they really rushed it they could publish in the fall of 2020, but that wouldn’t give them time to do it right, and it wasn’t a Christmas book, and you get lost in January, and—

Spring 2021 would be my guess.

It was early this year before I made the firm decision to self-publish. And now it’s March 11 as I write these lines, and the book became available for preorders two days ago. The official release date is June 24, the very day when I celebrate my birthday.

My 82nd birthday, and I’ll tell you something. No man who’s too old to buy green bananas wants to sit on his hands waiting for his book to come out. I’ve always been impatient in this regard, and whenever I typed THE END at the bottom of a manuscript I wanted to be able to have a quick drink, put on a sport jacket, walk around the corner, and see the book I’d just finished on a bookstore shelf.

And I’m doing very nearly that with Dead Girl Blues. It’s typeset, it’s got a dandy cover, it’s uploaded to all online ebook platforms, here and abroad—and you can order it right now, if you’ve a mind to.

But you may not want to. One thing I’ve taken pains to do, when preparing the book description for the online booksellers, is to warn off the readers who won’t welcome Dead Girl Blues into their homes. Because I really don’t want to sell a book to someone who’s not going to enjoy it.

A few years ago William Morrow brought out Small Town, a big New York novel with a powerful erotic element. A lot of people loved the book and called it a favorite, but at the same time I got a whole lot of outraged emails from longtime readers who were hoping for a book about an endearing burglar and his stub-tailed cat. And more recently I got a one-star review for Getting Off, by some sensitive soul outraged over the sex and violence contained therein. (I wasn’t going to apologize for that one. The prominent subtitle read “A Novel of Sex and Violence.” I mean, what did they expect?)

Oh well. David Morrell and Joe Lansdale love Dead Girl Blues, and gave me powerful quotes to that effect. Quite a few folks have said they started the book and couldn’t stop reading it, although they had other things they were supposed to be doing.

You know what? When I last re-read DGB, I realized it was exactly the book I want it to be. And how often does that happen? And what more could an old man possibly ask for?

Lawrence Block has been writing crime, mystery, and suspense fiction for more than half a century.  He has published in excess (oh, wretched excess!) of 100 books, and no end of short stories. Dead Girl Blues is available for pre-order.


Camille Minichino said...

Possibly every midlist writer's dream post.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Love this post!

विकास नैनवाल 'अंजान' said...

love the post....

Clea Simon said...

Love this - as a reader and a writer. Lots to think about, and Block really laid it all out. Thank you!

kk said...

Excellent post.

Bonnie Mandel said...

Just pre ordered for my Kindle. Can’t wait to take it for a spin. Sounds a little out of my 73 yo wheelhouse but I think I’m gonna like it. Loved the post.

Karl A. Krogmann said...

I would read, if Mr. Block would ever publish such a thing, his grocery list. I have no doubt whatsoever DEAD GIRL BLUES will be terrific. I for one wish more writers would publish short novels. I mean, not everything worth taking to the shore has to weigh in at 300,000 words. If this particular entry on the Block bookshelf wound up at 52k, then so be it. A story should dictate its own length.

Looking forward to Larry's 82nd birthday.

Paul Levine said...

A master of the craft! Wish we had a recording of Block, Westlake, and Garfield talking shop. I can practically hear the ice clinking.

joshpac said...

As always, Larry, a fascinating read.

Unknown said...

Terrific post.