Friday, October 5, 2018

The Big Squeeze

Overheard at Bouchercon in Florida last month: “I don't write series *or* standalone; I write books.” Do you love/hate/mind/notice/use/ignore the publishers' and booksellers' classifications of your work?

by Paul D. Marks

It’s not a question of loving/hating/minding/noticing/using or ignoring the classifications. I do all of those, well maybe except for the first. But it’s something we have to live with. What annoys me is when the Powers That Be want to stuff us or our work into a small bag or can’t figure out what bag to stuff us into.


Early on in my switch from scripts to prose, I wrote a novel based on a screenplay I had written. The screenplay had been optioned many times by many people or entities, but ultimately never produced – story of my life. So I decided to turn it into a novel. It’s a mystery-thriller with a touch of sci-fi. An editor at a well-known publisher wanted it. But whatever committee of faceless people make the final decisions on such things rejected it. Why? Because they didn’t know how to classify it. Was it a mystery? A thriller? Sci-fi? How do we sell it? What section of the bookstore would it go in? Things like that. So the editor, much to her regret, had to reject it.

I also agree with what Susan said on Monday re: agents or publishers trying to squeeze you into a box.

Series vs. Standalone

Why not do both? Initially, I didn’t think I’d want to be writing a series character. I thought it might get stale. But there are ways to keep series fresh and exciting. To this point I’ve written two Duke Rogers P.I. novels, White Heat and the recently released Broken Windows. And a third is slated. I’ve also written several short stories in the Ghosts of Bunker Hill series, featuring another P.I., Howard Hamm, that’s been appearing in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

The Howard Hamm series is fun to write in a lot of ways. For one thing, the narrator is dead. Yup, dead. A ghost. He was killed in the first story. You’d think being dead he’d be like an omniscient narrator who sees and knows everything. But not in this case. He pretty much sees what Howard sees over Howard’s shoulder. And even if does see something that he wants to give Howard a heads up on or wants to warn Howard about he has no way to communicate with him. Frustrating. It’s hard being a ghost. The stories are, in my humble opinion, solid mysteries, but they do have that ghostly aspect to them.

On the other hand, the Duke Rogers series is more on the hardboiled and noir side. No ghosts. Just clear doses of hard-edged reality. And so far each story, including the coming one, is set around real events. The stories take place in the 1990s. White Heat revolves around the Rodney King riots of 1992. Broken Windows around California’s anti-illegal alien Proposition 187 events of 1994. And the third one will also revolve around actual events that took place in L.A. in the later 90s. The fact that they revolve around real events that the characters find themselves in keeps it fresh on one level. But the thing that really keeps it fresh is how one deals with the characters. Hopefully, the characters are live, flesh and blood people with real problems and life stories and situations. This helps keep them alive and fresh and facing new challenges, besides the challenges of the cases they’re working or those real events that envelope the cases and characters.

Vortex is a stand-alone novel, about a returning vet, who finds more trouble at home than he did in the war. So that was a break from the series characters.


On the other-other hand (I think I might be running out of hands) I don’t really want to be typecast as only the guy who does the Duke Rogers series or the Howard Hamm series. So I try to switch it up sometimes. For the Bouchercon Florida Happens anthology I did a story called There’s an Alligator in My Purse, which is a humorous take on the foibles of Florida and people. I hope readers get a chuckle or two out of it. And, though I’m known – if I’m known at all – as a noir or hardboiled writer, I do like writing humorous things once in a awhile, like that story or Continental Tilt (which you can find in the Murder in La La Land anthology), and hopefully funny stories as well. That said, Windward, my story from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, is another story about a P.I. A different kind of P.I., whose Venice Beach office is over a Cold War bomb shelter that also serves as his home. And, while that might sound a little humorous, the story really doesn’t work on that level. And, no, I don’t only write about P.I.s, but lately my works seem to be the Invasion of the Body Snatcher P.I.s. And why not, who doesn’t want to carry a gat, wear a fedora and trenchcoat and have a moll on each arm. I guess my P.I.s don’t, ’cause none of them do any of those things. Well, maybe they carry a gat when needed.


So the bottom line is that there’s reasons for doing series and reasons for breaking from the pattern. As long as I can do both I’m good to go. Just don’t stuff me in a bag that doesn’t fit.


And now for the usual BSP:

I’m honored and thrilled – more than I can say – that my story Windward appears in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, which just came out this week. I wrote a blog on that on SleuthSayers if you want to check it out: .

I’m doubly thrilled to say that Windward won the Macavity Award at Bouchercon a few weeks ago. Wow! And thank you to everyone who voted for it.

And I’m even more thrilled by the great reviews that Broken Windows has been receiving. Here’s a small sampling:

Here’s a small sampling of excerpts from reviews for Broken Windows:

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element

"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:

"This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:

"Broken Windows is extraordinary."

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website


Kaye George said...

I'm thrilled that your very dark "Blood Moon" is in Day of the Dark, too! I think your voice does well from very dark to much lighter. Kudos on such a great reception for your new novel.

Susan C Shea said...

What strikes me most forcefully is that you write a LOT, sail right over the fences between genres and forma (short stories, novels, screenplays), and just keep on keeping on. Depending on my mood that's either inspiring or intimidating!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Kaye. I’m very happy to have been in Day of the Dark, as well! Which, by the way, was a terrific collection. And congratulations to you, too!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Susan. It’s funny that you say I write a lot, I feel like I write slowly and not enough. But I’ve been doing short stories, need to concentrate more on novels for a while I think. I do try to write across genre, or at least sub-genre lines. It keeps it more interesting.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Paul,

I do dislike having my work categorized because I write in so many genres. But I understand why publishers do this. They want sales and neat categories help attract readers.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. I understand the need for categories, too. But I think sometimes "they" want to squeeze you into a box when maybe your work needs a bigger box, if that makes sense :-) .

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Great post, Paul.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dieter.